Excerpts of his story by his son, Michael Kulik
Poland - November 1939
Throughout history a victim of the most unfortunate of geographic locations, Poland again falls prey to the well-practised territorial ambitions of Germany and Russia. A new Dark Age is entered - the fourth partition - a period that is destined to bring unprecedented suffering and misery upon the Polish people: the “Polish Golgotha.” Of a pre-war population of around 35 million just under 7 million, that is 1 in 5, will perish.
Only in the minds and thoughts of a people well used to the trials and tribulations of foreign domination does their nation still exist. As far as Hitler and Stalin are concerned Poland has already disappeared, expunged from the map of Europe - never to rise again. Great Britain and France, stunned by the relatively swift victory of Germany over their ally do nothing, but wait. Strangely, although having helped to bring an already bleeding Poland to its knees, Russia does not receive any declaration of war from either London or Paris.
In the Nazi occupied zone the Germans continue to hunt down the Polish army units who, despite the official surrender of 5th October, refuse to disarm and have gone to ground emerging periodically to harry and attack the Wehrmacht supply lines. The German High Command, acutely aware of Hitler's stated intention to launch a surprise attack on France and Great Britain during the fall of 1939, seize upon these continuing acts of resistance, albeit somewhat isolated and sporadic, as evidence for the need to be cautious. Hitler, for once, accedes to their briefings and decides to wait until spring and the better weather.
In eastern Poland, Russian plans for repressive measures against their Polish population are also well under way. My grandfather Antoni Kulik, granted 27 acres of land in recognition of his military service against Russia in 1919/20, has already been evicted from his home and has now sought refuge with his in-laws at the nearby village of Szubkow. In addition, he has been stripped of his Polish nationality and is now officially considered a Russian Citizen. With him, lodged in one room, are his wife and five children. The mood is, naturally, one of great uncertainty and foreboding, my father Bogdan Kulik, just 11 years of age at this time is there:
‘It was for me, as an 11-year-old boy, a time of great personal freedom. You must understand that at this age, you do not fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation in which you now find yourself. All I knew was that I no longer had my farm duties to carry out and all schooling had been cancelled - I was free! Now I am reaching the end of my own life, I look back on those times with a certain amount of guilt as my parents, especially my father, were broken people - their lives work taken away from them. Adults then, did not share their feelings with their children; it was a forbidden subject. However, it was the first time I saw my parents cry.’
The Russian authorities had, amongst the numerous decrees targeting the local Polish population, issued directives severely restricting the right to free movement. This did not stop certain individuals, fearing they were at greater risk remaining where they were, attempting to escape to the German sector of occupied Poland. My Grandfathe’rs brother was one such person: when Germany invaded Poland, on September 1st 1939, he was visiting the Kulik farm holding and found himself stranded by the outbreak of hostilities. Nonetheless he managed to cross the new German-Soviet frontier and return to his home in western Poland.
My father decided he would too ignore this order and, “out of devilment” he says, wandered around the local area visiting the nearby town of Tuczyn and also spending time exploring the surrounding woods and forests. He also returned to his former home, walking the four or five miles from his grandmothers on more than one occasion:
‘I wanted to see if my dog “Rzuk” was still alive. We had taken him to grandmothers when we were evicted, but he would continually return to what he considered was his home. As I walked through our former Osada, I saw that many dwellings looked as if they had been taken over by squatters. Others had been ransacked by Ukrainian collaborators who had turned them over stealing what their former occupiers had been unable to carry, or searching for any valuables that had been left behind. Also I became increasingly aware of a great number of hungry, sad looking dogs, roaming the area - searching for their masters.
‘Then I saw him and he ran to me as if to say, “Where have you been? I've been waiting.” Then I saw our farmhouse; squatters too had visited us. Our lovely home was going to rack and ruin; instead of taking wood from the forest, they were taking down the fencing and outbuildings for fuel. They were sitting there, a group of three or four men7, around a fire; I marched over to them. “Who are you?” they asked. I told them that I was the owner and that once the Russians had gone I expected them to do the same. They just smiled and told me “you will be an old man before they go.”
‘I turned to leave and “Rzuk” gripped my sleeve, almost as if he were pleading with me not to go. He followed me for a short way and then returned, whimpering softly, to the farm - faithful to the end. Whilst my home was still in sight I turned back and gazed back at what we had lost - I never saw my dog or home again.’
Jan Kulik, my uncle, also returned to his former home on more than one occasion. Some arrangement was made with the local ruling committee and, with the agreement of the farm squatters, a horse and cart was borrowed from the farm for felling trees for fuel. In return for supplying a certain amount of timber to the local authorities, an amount could be retained for personal use. On these returns his uncle Aleksander, his mother's brother, would accompany Jan.
The winter of 1939/40 is remembered as being exceptionally harsh, with temperatures often as low as -30 degrees Celsius. These conditions added to the general ill feeling of my grandfather and his family, an ill feeling that was about to manifest itself in a most terrible and terrifying manner. During January 1940, people began to notice the appearance of a large number of goods wagons in the local railway yards. The elder generation, those that had lived under previous Russian occupations, knew what this meant - they prayed that they were wrong.
The waiting was over.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, on February 10th 1940, the Russians came to arrest my grandfather and his family. It will be recalled that when the eviction from their former home had taken place the previous November, Antoni Kulik had been ordered to register with the authorities his new place of residence. Therefore, it was to the Chiemelewski farm that the Russians, accompanied by armed local Ukrainian militia, came for their victims.
Jan Kulik, who had followed his father towards the insistent hammering of the front door, describes what happened next:
‘It was about 4.30am, when they came for us. My father answered the door and was forcibly pushed back inside at bayonet point as two Ukrainian militia, accompanied by Russian NKVD1, entered my Grandmother’s house. At rifle point, they read out the order of re-settlement and gave the names of the people to be deported: my family, all of us - children included. My father asked the Russian officer in charge where we were to be deported to, he replied “you'll find out when you get there.”
‘At this point my father was told to assemble his family - we had 30 minutes to pack what was left of our belongings. My mother, helped by her own mother, quickly packed what they could - clothing, bedding, eiderdowns, pillows and cooking utensils - everything was done with the constant urging from our captors of “poskorey, poskorey” (“quickly, quickly”). Told to dress warmly, we then had to assemble outside where, waiting for us, was a sleigh with a team of horses.’
Bogdan Kulik also recalls this bitterly cold and fateful morning; his account is as follows:
‘Just after 4am, I heard raised voices and went to investigate what was the cause of the arguments that I could hear. There, in the NKVD uniform, stood two Russian soldiers who were telling my father to get his family up and out of the house. They had a list of names of the people they had come to arrest even me, eleven years old. I heard him ask “Why? What have we done to deserve this?” One of the Russians replied “the locals object to you.” My father just shook his head.
‘In the commotion, I managed to slip outside behind one of the barns, followed by my elder sister Hela - for a moment the thought of escape crossed my mind. Then, the uncertainty of youth brought me to my senses: where would I go? And to whom? In less than one hour we were loaded onto horse drawn sledges and taken to the nearby railway station. It was to be the start of our nightmare.’
Unknown to my father's family, the fate of the local Polish population had been decided by Stalin himself in December 1939. The lists of those to be deported, and the necessary requisition of transport and military personnel to carry out this act, had been finalised during mid January 1940. The deportation of whole groups of a civilian population from their place of origin to different geographic and climatic territories was a well-tried and practised Soviet policy. In this way the Russians reasoned that “if not able to control the mind of the individual, then at least they would dictate the whereabouts of his surroundings.”
Along with the former military settlers such as my grandfather upon which the Russians had great desire to wreak their revenge, other groups also found themselves included on the deportation lists. Municipal personnel, forestry workers, large sections of the Polish intelligentsia2 and, rather ironically, a number of Ukrainian and Byelorussian civilians also found themselves being arrested (some of whom had previously welcomed the Russians as liberators, during the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939!).
My great grandmother was spared this fate as, part of a family resident for several generations in Szubkow (many of which had been spent under Russian occupation); she was not considered a threat. As one mother, with heavy heart, watched her daughter disappear into the distance she did not realise she would never see her again - fate had already conspired to rob her of two of her four children, Russia would see to a third3.
The sledges were taken to the nearby railway station of Lubormirka, where thousands of people were already congregated. Along the railway track, stretched as far as the eye could see, were long lines of goods wagons4 each awaiting their human cargo. For two days the deportees waited in their stationary cells, guarded by Russian soldiers, before eventually they were shunted a few miles to the town of Zdolbunow where more victims were waiting. Here they were unloaded before again being placed into further wagons on the opposite side of the railway tracks. More significantly, Zdolbunow was the place where the Russian style “wider gauge” railway began - all routes from here headed east.
At midnight on 13th February, a huge locomotive was coupled onto the waiting wagons and the long journey into exile began. Jan Kulik continues:
‘We had no idea where we were going, or what awaited us. Our home for the next 3 weeks was to be the inside of a cattle truck, complete with straw on the floor. On each side were two levels of bed bunks and in the middle of the truck was a cast iron stove from which a pipe led through the roof. At roof level were two small grilled windows that, because of their size, allowed little air or light to enter.
‘In one corner a hole had been cut into the floor, which was to be used for our personal needs. In order to preserve some modesty, a curtain was found so this area could be used with at least a little privacy. Inside each wagon were loaded approximately 10 families, about 60 or so persons - my mother's cousin had also been arrested, along with the rest of her family, and they were placed with us in the same wagon. This is how we were deported to Siberia.’
After an inordinate amount of time spent constantly shunting backwards and forwards, probably the addition of yet more wagons being coupled onto the ever growing transport, the long procession of trucks eventually crossed the 1939 Polish/Russian border late in the evening of 15th February. At this point the deportees, realising the significance of this moment, began singing the Polish National anthem - many also began weeping. They now realised that there was no turning back; the vastness of Russia, with all its torments, awaited them.
Periodically the train would come to a halt in the middle of a white and desolate countryside and people would be allowed to climb down from the wagons for a few moments. On these occasions, snow would be collected in whatever was to hand and this would be used to wash oneself, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Russian guards. After a few minutes, orders would be barked to climb back inside the wagons and again the doors would be slid shut and firmly bolted. Although why was another matter, no one was foolish enough to even consider contemplating escape - in any case, where to?
When passing through towns and cities the transport would either come to a halt on the outskirts or, lest it came to the attention of the inquisitive and prying eyes of the locals, be directed into sidings. Here a selected few would again be allowed down from the wagons and given buckets in which to collect bread and water. On occasion, fish soup, or rather water in which fish had been boiled, would also be given. Although of an extremely basic nature, these provisions helped the deportees to eke out what little food they had managed to bring with them. At these stops, coal would also be taken on board to feed the ever-hungry locomotive engine.
The transport continued ever eastwards passing through the towns and cities of Gomel, Bryansk and Orel before, on the evening of 20th February, changing direction and heading northwards. The temperatures inside the wagons, already bitterly cold, now plunged further downwards. Indeed some people would wake to find that their hair, or clothing, had frozen to the side of the wagon leaving them to shout for help to free themselves. The first fatalities were also being claimed, as the elderly amongst the transport began to find the ordeal too much - babies too began to freeze to death. The dead would be removed from the wagon; their final resting places unknown.
On the 22nd February the train passed within a few miles of the outer suburbs of Moscow before coming to a halt for the night at Orekhovo. Over the next few days the journey continued, still in a northerly direction, passing through Vladimir, Gorkiy and Kirov5. Now and again the wagon doors would be slid open and the guards would beckon someone down, handing them buckets in order to collect what ever provisions were this time being offered. Still it was unknown to what destination they were heading, or just how much longer they were expected to travel in the worsening conditions which were deteriorating by the hour.
Eventually, after travelling through a seemingly never ending forested area the transport slowed and then came to a halt. The doors of the wagons were slid open and the bewildered prisoners, my grandfather and his family amongst them, were ordered to disembark gasping as they did so as the icy air hit their faces. All around the sound of screaming and sobbing children could be heard: the snow was so deep that as they were helped down from the trains some simply sank and had to almost be dug out by their parents.
As the temperature hovered barely above -40 degrees Celsius my grandfather, determined that no one should be separated, beckoned his family to keep close together. What awaited them now?
ONTO THE CAMPS
It was late afternoon on 27th February 1940 - my grandfather and his family had arrived in the town of Kotlas, on the River Dvina, County of Archangel. In just under 3 weeks, they had travelled more than 1,500 miles from their homeland - still, they were alive and they thanked God for bringing them this far.
Jan Kulik’s account continues:
‘We were taken to a huge hall of some kind and here we were to spend the night, lying on the cold floor - carefully clutching our bundles lest someone should steal them whilst we slept. Although, having said this, sleeping was very difficult as the sobs of children could be heard all around punctuating the dark. Parents tried their very best to soothe and comfort the worries of their often very young families, trying in turn not show their own true state of nervous anxiety.
‘In the morning our names were called out and we were loaded onto more horse drawn sledges - our journey was not finished, apparently our final destination was still a further 20 miles or so away. Other families were not so fortunate and utter pandemonium and scenes of great despair broke out as some people found themselves being forcibly separated and sent to differing destinations. We crossed the River Dvina just as a snowstorm blew up; soon visibility was down to just a few yards. After a full day travelling, some of which we were forced to walk so as to lessen the load for the horses; we reached Privodino where we spent the night in a converted Orthodox Church.’
The next day, March 1st, the deportees were loaded onto a narrow gauge railway travelling again through yet more deep forests as the transport made its slow progress through the drifting snow and ice. After a few hours, the wagons came to halt in a clearing in the forest where, waiting patiently, were yet more horse drawn sledges. By now everyone was in a state of extreme exhaustion as they dragged their weary bodies ever onwards, again praying to God to bring their journey to an end. Thankfully, a short sledge ride later, they arrived at Posiolek Kotovalsk.
They had arrived at a work camp that had been built some years earlier by previous Russian and Ukrainian prisoners, who had been moved out to make way for more deportees - this time Polish. In a way the new prisoners were more fortunate than the previous occupants who would literally have been brought to the clearing in the forest and told, that is if they wished to live, to build themselves shelter.
Posiolek Kotovalsk was not a large camp - it consisted of four barracks, a communal kitchen, a storeroom and a further building that could be optimistically described as a “shop.” In addition, separate buildings housed the Commandant of the camp and the guards. My grandfather and his family were allocated to one of the barracks; gloomily they contemplated what was in store for them.
Jan Kulik continues:
‘Our barrack was split into two sections, in each was a large brick stove. Lining the walls were planks of wood, which were to serve as bunk beds. The conditions were extremely cramped - when lying down in the bunks, if one person turned over, literally it meant that everyone else had to. We were allowed, I think, 2 or 3 days of rest then all the family heads were summoned to a meeting called by the camp Commandant - my father attended.’
The prisoners were told that they must forget all about Poland - it had ceased to exist and now they were no longer to be idle landowners exploiting the lower classes but were to work for the good of the Soviet Union and Stalin. In return for working hard and meeting their set work quotas, they would be paid accordingly. Anyone over 14years of age was to be ordered to work - no exceptions would be made, on either age or sex. Children above the age of 7 years would attend school, where they would be educated in the Soviet way.
All adults were then organised into brigades, or assigned duties, and put to work. Jan Kulik was allocated to the camp sawmill:
‘I worked cutting timber into railway sleepers, pit props and sometimes into cubes or blocks for the tractor engines. You would be paid according to how many pieces you produced - always piecework and always you would be set impossible work quotas to reach. On occasion, I would be required to unload timber logs that would arrive on the nearby narrow gauge railway, other times it would be floated down the river for collection. Depending on how much you earned, you could then use this to buy provisions from the shop. Sometimes there was no food, or if there was you couldn’t always afford to buy it.’
Shortly afterwards, just before Easter, some families were taken by sledge and moved to another nearby camp - Posiolek Statzia Mlodikh, about 2 or 3 miles away. This was presumably to make space for more new prisoners who had also been deported. Only a short time was spent here when again certain families, my grandfather’s included, were moved on to another camp.
My father, Bogdan Kulik, describes their arrival:
‘We were greeted by an enormous gate at the entrance, surrounded by a high wooden stockade with guard towers at each corner. This looked like a real prison - one way in, one way out. Again, we were allocated barracks although, this time, each family were given separate quarters with bunk beds and an iron stove that could be used for heating and cooking. Surrounded by firs, which towered over us like waiting executioners, this was to be our home for the next 18 months.’
They had been brought to Posiolek Monastyrok, a former political prison situated on a tributary4 of the River Dvina. A converted Russian Orthodox Church still retaining its huge dome complete with crosses dominated the site which, under different circumstances, might have been described as idyllic. The church, however, had long ceased its original purpose as a place of worship; it was now used as a shop on one side, with a communal kitchen down the other. Additional buildings alongside the church were used for schooling for both the imprisoned Polish children and local Russians, where everyone above the age of 7 years was expected to attend, my father included:
‘Along with my sister Stefa, I was forced to attend the school where all lessons were conducted in Russian. Here the aim was to indoctrinate us, it was constantly hammered into us that there was no God, Poland had ceased to exist, but if we were to ask anything of Stalin, he would listen to our request. We were also encouraged to inform on, or denounce our parents, if we heard them criticising the Russian system. One good thing came out of it I suppose - I would learn to speak fluent Russian.’
This would serve my father, still not yet 12 years of age at this time, well.
Posiolek Monastryok already had a number of existing Russian and Ukrainian prisoners, some of whom were actually descendants of the original deportees who had been brought here in 1917 and at regular intervals since. These prisoners were a mixture of hardened criminals serving long sentences for “crimes against the Russian state” or other individuals who had been given shorter terms for “anti-social behaviour.” It was in this environment that my grandfather and his family now found themselves.
The Russian way, as is common with most totalitarian regimes, was to foster and encourage an intense atmosphere of constant fear and betrayal. The idea being to isolate still further the prisoner, leaving him or her never certain whether the person seeking their confidence is doing so genuinely or for other ulterior motives. Consequently the camp, gradually, gained a number of informants all seeking to improve their miserable lot in any way possible - some of which, it is regrettable to say, were Poles.
Jan Kulik recalls:
‘I remember a friend who must have said something out of turn which, unfortunately, found its way back to the Commandant. One day, after work, he was summoned to his office and I never saw him again. Whether he was sent to another camp as punishment, or something worse, I never found out. On another occasion, I learnt that a Pole who had recently become a widower, his wife had died in some accident in the forest leaving him with 8 children, offered his services to the Commandant as an informant. This way you see he figured he could feed his children, otherwise they would starve to death.’
My father too became a victim of this practise, his account continues:
‘Although people were employed working with wood, and surrounded by it, you were not allowed to use it - you had to buy it. Consequently this meant, in order to keep warm, people would steal it and sneak the wood back into their quarters. One night, along with a few others, I left the camp confines in order to smuggle wood from the forest for the stove. On the way back a round up took place, those that ran back towards the camp got caught whilst a few of us ran back into the forest and, after crossing the frozen river, tried to approach the camp from the other side.
‘Luckily in the commotion we managed to slip back inside the camp and back to our barracks where we lay, hoping we had escaped detection. However one of those caught in the round up must have informed on me as a guard came and, feeling I was still cold, took me away for questioning. I was told that if I admitted to stealing I would be released. I refused and so I was put into a cellar, awash with rats, for the night.
‘The following morning more questions, but still I refused to admit my guilt. So they brought my father to see me and I was told that if I did not confess he would be imprisoned in my place. My father, not knowing what he should do, looked at me, and then said to the Commandant “He’s just a boy, let him go.” He replied that he would if my father would turn informant. I managed to catch my father's eye as if to say no and so my father refused. After a few further hours, we were both released.’
This experience did not deter my father from again, shortly afterwards, chancing his arm and leaving the camp at night - this time to forage for food, alone, from one of the nearby communal farms:
‘Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I would be at less risk the less people knew. So at night, and without telling anyone, I took to stealing cabbages, potatoes and the like from one of the farms close by and bringing these back to my mother to eke out what food we could afford to buy from our wages. On the first occasion, my mother chastised me but then she stopped asking questions, probably on the basis that what she did not know would not worry her.
‘I almost got caught on one night when I stumbled upon some farm workers who were playing music and drinking by firelight. Perhaps because they were somewhat the worse for wear, I managed to escape detection by lying in the snow. After a short time, I slipped away carrying my booty with me.’
The arctic winter lasted from October to May, following which there would be three or four months of sometimes very intense summer temperatures. Indeed, during the months of June, July and August the daylight hours would last almost literally around the clock and so, taking advantage of this, the Russian authorities extended the working day for many of the prisoners. This dramatic switch in climate brought other problems for the weakening deportees who were finding the strength sapping demands of felling the forest increasingly difficult to contend with. Their barracks were built from logs, the gaps of which were filled with moss and lichen for insulation. At night clouds of insects, lice and bugs would emerge from the barrack walls to pierce the skins of the sleeping occupants. Daylight would bring little respite to their torment, as great waves of irritants would then leave the forest marshes to prey on the already starving bodies of the prisoners, leaving their faces swollen with bites.
The short summer months did allow the deportees to regain some of their strength and offered them certain possibilities to improve their situation, albeit in a limited manner. Although scurvy, typhoid and dysentery continued to stalk them, the regular burials of those who had died, especially the elderly and a significant number of very young children, would abate slightly. Work would be offered on some of the nearby communal farms either feeding livestock, scything the hay, or harvesting crops that flourished in the short, but sweltering summer months. My grandmother would volunteer for this work and would bring back to the camp cereal feed, originally intended for the farm pigs. In addition to these visits out from the camp the women would, once a month, be allowed a pass out to visit the outlying villages. On these occasions, they would decide which of the family possessions still remaining they least needed - headscarves, shawls, ribbons, jewellery would all be exchanged for bread and milk and anything else that could be eaten. Wedding rings would be bartered for half a loaf of often-mouldy bread.
Some of the deportees, many of them of course previously farmers themselves, hit on the idea of gathering a few seeds and in hope, more than anything else, prepared a patch of soil outside their barracks. This created some mirth amongst some of the prisoners but to their astonishment, and it must be said considerable envy, the seeds soon established themselves and very passable crops soon ensued. Needless to say this additional, and life supporting, source of food proved an irresistible attraction to certain inmates and it was not long before these fledgling plots needed guarding against theft.
My father too was involved in other attempts to supplement the meagre family rations:
‘Sometimes, together with my sisters Hela and Stefa, we would go into the forest to collect berries and mushrooms. As well as for our own use my mother would sometimes be able to exchange them in the villages for potatoes. On one of these trips I met a huge bear in the woods that, catching my scent on the gentle breeze, stood on his hind legs as if preparing to attack. I was told to stand perfectly still and not to panic or else the bear would certainly kill me. Luckily, the bear yawned and turned away - I was saved!
‘In the camp itself I would, occasionally, miss school in order join the queue for bread at the so-called shop. This could sometimes be a heart-breaking task in itself as children, perhaps five or six years old, would often be begging and crying for food on the way. These were children whose parents were ill or had no workers left in their family so in the Russian way of thinking no work, no food. In your own quest for food you could not always answer their cries for help, although I did when I was able. Once the Commandant caught me in the queue for bread: “You again”, he said, “if you don’t go to school Bogdan Kulik, I’ll put you to work.” I re-joined the queue once he had continued on his rounds.
‘On other occasions I would tie two railway sleepers together and, using a board as a makeshift paddle, I would navigate to the other side of the river. Here I would pick sorrel that could be used by my mother to make soup. This would be an improvement on the soup normally available from the shop which was usually “Ukha” - a soup with a few fish heads floating in it - or “Shchi”, the same watery soup but this time with cabbage leaves instead of fish.’
The river also brought other opportunities and dangers, my father’s account continues:
‘Quite often, in early May, explosives would be used break the ice and so free the logjams that had formed during the winter. Following the blast fish would be thrown onto the riverbank which, of course, you took advantage of. Once the ice flows had cleared the river would often be almost a sea of logs, so many that you could almost walk across to the other side. These logs, together with rafts sometimes up to 100 meters long would be floated down to Archangel and the White Sea. I remember once I was swimming in the river and I almost drowned as I got trapped under one of the rafts floating past. Through a gap in the raft, I managed to shout out for help and snatch a quick breath of air. A workman on the raft instructed me which direction I should swim out towards and I managed to free myself.’
As summer again turned into winter Jan Kulik, along with several other of the younger prisoners, was moved to yet another work camp5 some 20 miles or so from Posiolek Monastryrok. Here, surrounded by huge forests, they were offered improved pay in return for larger work quotas. Jan Kulik’s account continues:
‘We were allocated to already existing work brigades, felling trees then stripping them of their branches and bark. Although the pay was good compared to before, you were working in the open, with snow and ice often up to your waist, in temperatures so low your spittle would freeze before it hit the ground. However, if you met your targets you were paid a bonus on top of the normal wage. I remember on one occasion receiving nearly 300 hundred roubles.
‘I don’t recall how long I remained in this camp but I do remember deciding, after a few weeks perhaps, to return to my family at Monastryok. Two of us managed to stow away in railway carriages full of timber although we nearly froze to death on the journey. On our return the lad I had absconded with had to be rubbed with snow to revive him, while I was given a hot toddy of some sort by my mother.’
The prisoners, somewhat depleted from their original numbers, had now been in exile, hundreds of miles from their homeland, for well over 12 months. As winter again, eventually and reluctantly, began to relax its icy grip and the first tentative signs of the arctic summer became evident, no release from their sentences seemed imminent or possible. They realised that no external help or assistance could be expected, as to all intents and purposes their fate was largely unknown to the outside world - as the Russian guards often took pains to remind them.
Salvation, however, was to come from a most unexpected source.
THE GATES OPEN
Unable to inflict defeat on Britain, his eyes now turned east towards Russia and its vast resources. Ignoring all warnings and intelligence, Stalin simply did not believe Hitler would invade; the Russians were caught completely off guard and unprepared when, in the early hours of 22nd June 1941, 3.5 million German troops poured across the Russian border. Operation Barbarossa - the greatest and bloodiest conflict of World War II had been launched.
The German progress was spectacular and by the end of July advance Wehrmacht units were almost half way to Moscow. Winston Churchill desperate for an ally of any sort, and having failed thus far to persuade America to join the war, cabled Stalin offering assistance against the German invaders stating that “any state who fights Nazism will have our aid.” This offer, despite coming from the lifelong avowed anti-communist that Churchill was, Stalin gratefully accepted. Seeing an opportunity to perhaps assist Poland, on whose behalf Britain had originally gone to war, Churchill then also encouraged the London based Polish government-in-exile to come to terms with the reality of their situation and to find some sort of accommodation with the Russians. He pointed out to them, candidly and in no uncertain terms, that this was the best and only viable option presently open to them.
Consequently a Polish-Soviet treaty was signed on 30th July 1941, part of which included a decree of amnesty for all former Polish citizens previously imprisoned and deported to Russia5. They were to be released; their Polish citizenship restored and, most importantly, granted the right to settle unconditionally anywhere on Soviet territories until hostilities with Germany had ended - then they were to be allowed to return to Poland. Also to be included in this amnesty were all the former Polish prisoners of war captured by the Russians during their invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939, those that is who were still alive.
About the second week in August, all the family heads were summoned to a meeting by the camp Commandant who, using a more conciliatory tone than was usual, advised the incredulous gathering that they were no longer prisoners but partners; their countries now allies that should unite. In addition they were informed that whilst they would be shortly be free to leave, better pay and conditions would be given to those willing to stay. Despite this news, the prisoners were warned that no one should risk leaving the camp before being given the appropriate release documents, as this would lead to their re-arrest as vagrants. More importantly, they would ultimately face starvation as these documents would also entitle them to soup and bread rations at designated railway stations.
It became clear that the Commandant was playing for time and, knowing that he was about to lose his workforce, he resorted to splitting certain families up in this way hoping to delay their eventual departure. According to Jan Kulik his sister, Alina Kulik, was sent with several other young women to nearby camps to help with the harvest. This resulted in my grandfather, anxious not to lose his daughter in case of any sudden departure, travelling to secure her return -this he successfully achieved. Meanwhile my grandmother, by selling a little of what family possessions remained, began to store and dry out bread for the journey that was to follow.
The first discharge documents were issued on 5th September 1941 and that same day, having heard rumours regarding the possible formation of a Polish army somewhere in central Russia, the first few emaciated prisoners quickly left - lest the authorities had a sudden change of mind. This first departure, whilst lifting the spirits of those who still remained in the camp, did increase their overall anxiety as they wondered on what basis, and in what order, the Commandant was scheduling the releases. A tense few weeks then followed before, on 5th October, a second group of prisoners were allowed to leave -this time, my grandfather and his family amongst them.
My father, Bogdan Kulik, describes their departure:
‘We were relieved to leave a place where human life had no value, where if a loved one died it was of little or no significance. However if the authorities lost an animal, which occasionally they did, all sorts of enquiries and questions would follow. Off we trudged, as the first winter snowflakes fluttered down from the grey leaden skies - a mother with her children, all of us carrying our pitiful sacks of some sort or another. On her back my mother carried a sack full of bread that she had been collecting since we learnt that we were to be released. With us, also walked my mother’s cousin and her family6.
‘I remember before we reached Kotlas we came across some cultivated fields, full of barley, potatoes and cabbages, that had been left unattended. Well to us this was heaven, so we quickly took advantage and stole what we could carry.’
It would take 2 days to walk the 20 or so miles to Kotlas - one nightmare was over, another one was about to begin.
THE TREK SOUTH
On reaching Kotlas, the newly released prisoners were greeted by scenes of utter despair and deprivation. Stretched out on either side of the railway tracks, as far as the eye could see, were thousands of people - exposed to the elements, all waiting for transport. A Polish mission had been set up at the railway station but found itself completely overwhelmed, as crowds of people besieged it all clamouring for help and advice on what to do and where to go.
It was into this heaving mass of humanity that my grandfather and his family arrived, Jan Kulik’s account continues:
‘Kotlas was complete purgatory - thousands of people arriving daily, from all points of the compass, all desperate to escape southwards where, it was said, a Polish Army was being organised. I remember seeing some people, covered in rags and lice, with slices of car or lorry tyre strapped to their feet with string. Who knows what suffering they had endured?
‘Two particular instances stay with me, even today, from the week or so we stayed in Kotlas, stranded waiting for transport. Near the railway station there was a bridge, or arch, where people were sheltering; amongst them a Jewish family - the father and two brothers, the mother was already dead. Shortly after the old man died, exhausted by his ordeal, I then saw his sons stripping his skeleton frame of its clothing. I asked them why they were doing this and they replied, “We can sell it for food, anyway he will not miss it where he is going.” It was true, I suppose.
‘On another occasion I was waiting for bread, and a group of former Polish prisoners-of-war joined the queue which was probably 400 or 500 metres long. They were in a terrible state: weak and emaciated - ghosts almost, their tattered uniforms now several sizes too big for them. After a few minutes one of the soldiers, an officer, collapsed and fell to the ground in a heap. Before anyone could come to his assistance, some Russian soldiers appeared and began cursing him, ordering him to his feet. The Polish officer, sensing he was finished if he did not, summoned all his remaining strength but was unable to obey their command. There, in front of my eyes, they proceeded to kick and beat him literally to death - this done by the very people that were our supposed new allies.’
Eventually after several days, a group of waggons were hired, coupled onto the end of other passenger carriages and, after the appropriate fee3 had changed hands, my grandfather and his family were allowed to board. Several more anxious hours followed before the huge locomotive, signalling its intention to depart, pulled slowly and surely out from the station to begin its journey into the great unknown. With the doors to the wagons this time unbolted they left Kotlas, the wind of freedom kissing their faces.
There then followed a journey that was to last the best part of a month as the train meandered slowly from city to city, station to station, moving on only when the line was free from other scheduled traffic. In addition, it must remembered that at this time, October/November 1941, German troops were still advancing on Moscow in a remorseless drive to the Russian capital. Due to this, all priority was given to military traffic, transports of both men and equipment that was being sent to the front in a desperate attempt to slow down or stop the enemy advance. Days would sometimes be spent idling in railway sidings, on other occasions the train would pause only for a few minutes before, without any warning, continuing on its way.
This presented a new danger to the former prisoners as when the train came to one of its many halts people would take advantage of this and leave the wagons with buckets in a desperate search for food - either at the trackside itself, or in the railway station of whatever city they found themselves in. Indeed my father recalls that at on one occasion he was welcomed into the railway restaurant area as the authorities mistook him for an evacuee from Moscow - needless to say, he did not correct them of this misapprehension. Other pauses in the journey would see him foraging for food in refuse bins, even one time returning to the train with a fish’s head that had been rescued from a rubbish tip.
Jan Kulik’s account continues:
‘Whether it was because of his age, he would have been only about 12 or 13 years of age at this time, your father seemed to have no sense of fear. Although I was some years older, maybe because being of a different temperament and nature, whilst I did leave the train in the search for food it was nothing like the way in which your father did. I remember on one occasion the train pulled out without him4 leaving him stranded at a station somewhere. Luckily he managed to catch up with us a day or two later.
‘I saw other people, realising that the transport was leaving without them, running desperately alongside the tracks - sometimes they would manage to clamber aboard, other times they disappeared under the wheels. On another occasion, I saw a young mother and child crushed by an oncoming train.’
Inside the wagons, the well being of those remaining began, once more, to deteriorate as typhoid, dysentery and the ever present and voracious lice continued to torment the passengers. Every time the train stopped it seemed that someone would be taken outside and hurriedly buried at the track side - the fear of being left behind ever present, people would leave their loved ones, alone forever, in a shallow grave.
This type of terrible experience was not to escape the Kulik family, as recalled by Jan Kulik:
‘At one station, I do not remember where, I buried my cousin Edek Lipinski - well in reality, I left him at the rail side in a shed of some sort. His mother wrapped his body in a sheet and asked me to bury her son. I carried him from the wagon and as I was leaving, I was told to bring the sheet and his clothing back with me. This sounds terrible today but you must understand, that is if you can, the situation - his clothes could be sold so that someone else might survive. I left his naked body in the shed with about a dozen others already there. Then I hurried back to the waiting train.’
Bogdan Kulik, my father, also remembers the death of their cousin:
‘I remember the death of my cousin Edek, it happened at night as we crossed the Russian Ural Mountains. I was lying next to him on one of the planks that served as bunks, feet to feet - as we all were - trying to keep each other warm. Suddenly I woke with a start and, as I did so, I noticed that he felt cold. Concerned, I woke my mother but she told me he was just asleep and I ought to do the same. A short while later I awoke again, still cold - he was dead. My cousin had died and no one had known or noticed.
‘When the train came to a halt, I climbed down and there I saw a sight that remains with me today. Stacked up between the carriages, on the crossovers between each wagon, were bodies - dead Poles, frozen solid. Sledges then appeared to take the bodies away to God knows where. This place was called Ufa.’
Originally, the plan had been to attach themselves to the Polish forces that were being organised from those soldiers that were still alive after two years of Russian captivity. However, when the trains reached the area where the army was mustering Polish welfare staff, who boarded the trains, instructed the former deportees to continue their journey southwards, towards the Asian Republics, where work could possibly be found on state run communal farms. The reason given that there was not enough food, shelter or medical supplies for the army let alone civilians, desperate as they were. In addition disease and death was, if anything, far more prevalent in the army at this time claiming scores of victims each day.
So the train continued but in no particular or recognisable direction, passing through Magnitogorsk, Sverdlovsk, and Chelyabinsk. At one point, to the considerable alarm and anxiety of the passengers, the transport meandered eastwards for several days - deep into Siberia reaching, at one point, the city of Novosibirsk. Eventually, continuing its ritual of constant stopping and starting but now heading due southwards, the locomotive bought its wagons into Alma-Ata, on the border of Kazakhstan and Kirghzia - at this time, autonomous republics of Soviet Russia. Here again it halted, this time for two days.
My fathers account continues:
‘We stopped in Alma-Ata for bread and here we were given the option of disembarking and offers of work. For some reason the adults refused, I think they thought they were still going back to Poland although my mother’s cousin did leave the train here with her family. So on we went, via a place called Frunze, to Tashkent - a beautiful city of mosques but full of thieves, as I was unfortunately to discover.
‘In Tashkent the train stood still for a number of days and again the Russian authorities asked us to disembark promising work in factories - again the adults refused. Nonplussed, I decided to walk into town and to my amazement; I found that the shops were full of food. Before I left the train, my mother had slipped me a bundle of notes and told me to do my best and see what I could find. I often wonder now, why me? Perhaps it was because I was small for my age so when I begged for food people therefore took pity on me; in any case off I went.
‘In one of the market squares I saw a huge line of people - what were they queuing for? Intrigued, I decided to find out. It was ice cream! Temptation took over after all I had not seen any for nearly two years, perhaps mother would like some. When I came to the head of the queue I had no money - it had been stolen. A sick feeling came over me, how would return to the train and explain what had happened? I looked around; hungry and desperate eyes stared back at me as if waiting to attack me should I accuse any of them. Fearing for my safety, I thought better of it.
‘Whilst I was wondering what to do next there was a sudden commotion and a fight broke out just behind me, someone else had been robbed. Just then, a Policeman appeared trying to resolve the angry argument that was now taking place. The person who had been robbed told the Policeman and pointed out a face in the watching crowd of faces. Forward he came: “Did you see me do it?” “Yes” came the reply. At that he lunged at his victim gouging at his eyes and spitting, “Well you will not see any more.” Alarmed I sought refuge in some nearby toilets.
‘I had not been here more than a few seconds and I witnessed a second assault and robbery. Two men were beating a third; I saw the glint of a knife and ran out back into the daylight. I returned to the train and to the wrath of my mother who castigated me for my stupidity. A short while later, with tears in her eyes, she told me to be more careful in future.’
Still with most of its surviving passengers on board10 the transport moved on once more, continuing on its meandering way as if uncertain of where it should go. Eventually, after a journey in excess of 2,500 miles and almost a month since they had left Kotlas, the locomotive reached its final destination. They had reached Osh, on the edge of the Tien Shen Mountain Range, just inside the then Soviet Republic of Kirghizia - literally the end of the line and less than a hundred miles from the Chinese border.
Here they were given the choice: either leave the train or be forcibly thrown off. Reluctantly the fearful passengers they climbed down, they were further than ever from Poland now.
Copyright Michael Kulik