Boleslaw (William) MAKOWSKI
A member of the Polish 2nd Corps, William was awarded the Virtuti Militari medal (Poland's highest military honour) for actions during the Italian Campaign.
HOME IN WOLYN
I was born on 24 December 1924, on a settlement called Osada Horyce in Wolyn, between Brest and Kobryn. My father Lucjan, born in Warsaw in 1897, had been a captain in the Polish Army during WWI and the Russian-Polish war, and had been granted land in this settlement. There were 15 to 20 Polish families living in the settlement, and the rest of the surrounding families were Ukrainian, Byelorussian, or Jewish.
My father had met my mother, Aleksandra Dabrowska, in the village and they had settled there and started a family. Sadly, my mother died in 1933, when she was only 22 or 23 years old, leaving behind her children aged 11, 9 and 5. Our grandparents lived in Zamosze, which was located east of Kobryn, closer to Pinsk, and Grandmother would divide her time between our home and her own. Within a few years, father remarried, and our step-mother took over our care. In 1938, my step-brother Ryszard was born.
The countryside in this part of the Eastern Borderlands of Poland was extremely beautiful. The area we lived in was a multicultural society. For instance, there were 8 Polish students and 9 Jewish students in my class, and the rest were Ukrainians and Byelorussians. We all got along and studied and played together. There were occasional conflicts, but not serious enough to cause problems.
Father did not spend all of his time on the settlement. Instead, he hired workers to tend the fields, and he himself spent much of his time in Warsaw, where he worked for the Transportation Ministry. As rumours of the war grew louder, he was making arrangements to have us all move to Warsaw and live with him there. But this never did happen. When the war broke out, Father signed up for the army even before being called up. He went to Pomorze several days before the war started, and joined the unit that was stationed there.
We were deported on 10 February 1940: my step-mother, my two sisters, my step-brother, and I. They came for us at about 6:00 in the morning and gave us 30 minutes to pack. One of the Russian soldiers told me to take warm things so I passed this information to the others and, thanks to this, I packed my father’s winter underwear – it was twice as big as I was, but it saved me from freezing to death in Siberia!
In a horse-drawn sleigh in -40 degree temperatures, we were taken to the railway station at Antopol where many hundreds were already waiting. While waiting, we met a lot of people that we knew. The train arrived a few hours later, and we were forced into the cattle wagons; about 70 or 80 people were squeezed into ours. It had the typical iron stove, a hole in the floor that served as a toilet, and the planks at each end that served as beds. We shared our ‘shelf’ with 2 other families, so we ended up almost sleeping one on top of the other. We had enough food with us for a few days, and then we went hungry. We were not provided with any food on the journey, and no one on the train shared their food with us.
There were Poles, Ukrainians, a few Jews, and Byelorussians in our wagon. They had all worked for the Polish government, either directly or indirectly. The majority of the adults on the train were women, as the men had mostly gone to war. There were also quite a few elderly people. I remember an older teacher who later was sent to work with me in the forest - she survived for only 7 days. The atmosphere in the wagon was one of hopelessness and despair. I remember that the women prayed a lot. No one sang – not even hymns.
The first time that the train stopped was in Vologda, north of Moscow. Here they opened the doors for the first time, and volunteers were allowed to go to the station and get ‘kipiatok’ (hot water) for the rest of us. I had a knife with me, and had made a hole in the wall so that I could observe the places that the train went through and get a sense of where we were going. I reported this information to the others in the wagon. The trip lasted for 18 days. It should have been much shorter, but there were several times when our train was put on a siding and we remained there for a day or two. We never learned why this was done.
LIFE IN SIBERIA
We stopped at Plesetsk and this is where we left the train. Plesetsk is situated in a region of taiga, or flat terrain with boreal pine forests. We were taken to a camp called ‘Nukhto-Ozyero” in the Pleszetski District, Archangielsk Oblast, where 1,700 of us were held prisoner. Our family was assigned to one room in the barracks, along with an older couple who had emigrated from France to Poland and were also deported. I ended up learning some French from them, which was very helpful to me later.
The first night was clearly a scene from Dante’s Inferno! The number of bedbugs is hard to imagine if you were not there yourself. When lighting a kerosene lamp, you would see that the entire surface of the ceiling and walls was covered with millions of bedbugs. It took months to get used to having them devour my poor emaciated body every night! Later, lice were added to the critters that attacked us. During the two years that we spent in the USSR, we never saw a single bar of soap, so personal hygiene clearly suffered.
There was a store in the camp, and it had two products for sale: there were propaganda books, and there was cologne water! The two books were Marx’s Das Kapital, and Stalin’s Philology of the Russian Language. As for the cologne water, we later found out that the Russians and Ukrainians at the camp were drinking it, because it contained a small amount of alcohol.
Every morning, my younger sister Janina would risk being trampled in the cafeteria by trying to be the first in line for the soup. They opened at 5 a.m. and she would be there by 3 a.m., but there would already be a lineup. People were pushing, children were trampled; it was a mad rush to get some food. The soup was called ‘szczy’ – a watery cabbage soup - and you were lucky to get a scrap of cabbage in it. The type of soup never changed, and generally only half the people actually managed to get some soup. Working people were also getting 700 grams of bread per day, and those who did not work received 450 grams of bread.
People were dying like flies, both from starvation and disease. Scurvy was widespread. It was horrible. The first stage was night blindness. In the second stage, your nose would start to disintegrate. In the third stage the body disintegrates; the bones actually become visible. I saw this happen again and again.
I ended up with night blindness, but I was lucky that my horse was smart enough to get me to the forest and back. A Soviet doctor cured me. She had only a chair and table in her office, and no medications. She said I need cod liver oil but this was reserved for the NKVD. In the end I managed to convince her to give me a few big spoonfuls, and this cured me overnight.
My sister Maria (aged 17) and I (aged 15) were assigned the same kind of work: driving a horse and sleigh into the forest and transporting the trees that had been cut down. We would bring these to Birza; the station where all the forest products were delivered. A train would take them from there to their varied destinations. The forest workers would help load the giant pieces onto the sleigh and then we would transport these over several kilometers to the station. The sleighs we had were peculiar to that area of the USSR; one had to stand and hold the reins high up in order to drive it.
I was assigned a horse called Czudak, which means funny one. It was a Siberian horse with very thick bones, about 6 inches of fur, and a highly irregular head – he looked horrible, and was rather on the small side. When I was assigned this horse, I went to the stable where I met Olga for the first time. Olga was the woman in charge of the horse stable. She was 6 feet and 6 inches tall, and had arms that would make a bear blush. When I asked for Czudak, she used language that would have made anyone blush! Then she showed me the horse’s hind quarters and it was evident that all this area had been burned. She explained that Russian criminals had had this horse – they had overloaded the sleigh and he could not pull it, so they lit a piece of wood and tried to force the horse to pull the sleigh by burning his hind quarers. From that day, Czudak had refused to work. They had wanted to kill it for the meat, but Olga had refused to let them. So she told me that there was no point in my trying, Czudak would not work for me.
I told her that I had no choice; the horse and the job had been assigned to me. What could I do? There was no way that I could refuse. So I led the horse out of the stable and hitched him to the sleigh. It did not help that I was not familiar with this task and did not quite know how to do it. Moreover, it was very cold, with the temperature hovering at minus 40 or worse. As I was struggling with this task I was suddenly lifted off my feet by Olga. She shook me, said a long litany of swear words, and threw me into the snow. It took her half a minute to hitch Czudak to the sleigh. Then she lifted me from the snow and threw me into the sleigh. The horse then drove to the forest; it knew exactly where to go!
When I reached the work spot in the forest, the Russians could not believe their eyes when they saw Czudak arrive. They all gathered around and made fun of the horse and of me – because of my diminutive size. Then the workers loaded the sleigh, and I think they added a bit too much to the load. So I said “Dawaj” repeatedly, and the horse looked at me and staunchly refused to budge. Eventually, with a lot of pleading on my part, he did move, and from that day on Czudak and I were the best of friends. He even saved my life twice, when we got stuck in a blizzard, and he found his way back to the camp. He even lifted me out of the snow at one point. It was an incredibly intelligent horse! Because of Czudak, I became known as one of the best drivers at the camp.
One day, the head of the camp stopped me and congratulated me on being such a good worker. He added that if I continue like this, in 5 years I will be able to buy a goat, and have milk, and that if I work this hard for a much longer period of time, I could even buy a cow ! This was the kind of thing that one dreamt of in such places – to own a goat or a cow.
One day, I went into the forest but I found no one at the work site, so I loaded the sleigh by myself and was returning with it, when I came upon the head of the camp who asked me what I was doing there. He explained that the Constitution states that if the temperature drops lower than minus 50, then the prisoners do not have to work. I replied “What is minus 50!? No problem! I do this for the motherland, for Stalin!” Of course I had said this in a facetious manner, but the head of the camp took this quite literally. At the following weekly propaganda meeting I was singled out as being a worker who was not scared off by minus 50 degree temperatures, and did this for the motherland and for Stalin! I quickly realized that he was talking about me, and that he had not realized the irony of my words. The other prisoners in the hall were all shaking their fists at me, and I had a lot of explaining to do after the meeting.
The workers had quickly organized an underground in the camp. This was very necessary in order to keep people’s spirits up. We were bombarded with hard work, lack of food, and with this relentless propaganda. The message was that we will work here until we die. So the underground spread messages about France and England coming to the aid of Poland, and many other things that we made up in order to lift people’s spirits.
The summer season in that part of the USSR lasts about 30 days. Some of those days are very hot, and the heat would set off forest fires. This was very good news for us because we would get 3 times more food in order to fight the forest fires. So we decided to burn more forest! As I was the fastest one there, I was chosen to run around with burning stakes and set fire to more forest. Had I been caught, I would have been shot on sight.
My sister Maria and my step-mother also worked in the forest, while the elderly couple cared for our brother Ryszard. The work was too hard for my step-mother, and she soon fell ill and died. My sister Janina was too young to work in the forest, so she was sent to Plesetsk (a distance of 25-30 kilometers from the camp) to work for a Russian family and mind their children. We did not see her again until we were preparing to leave the camp when ‘amnesty’ was declared.
Not a single letter that we wrote to Poland was ever answered, so we knew nothing of what was happening back home. We later learned that the Germans had taken my father prisoner, but he escaped during the transport, and he joined the underground close to Warsaw. He met his future wife there. He was with 7 other prisoners that the Germans had locked in a barn, and they were all to be shot. His future wife pleaded with the German officer, saying that he was one of their workers and he was the one who knew most about the bee hives (her father owned over 100 hives and produced a great deal of honey). The officer was impressed by the fact that they had honey, so she offered him a barrel and he agreed to let my father go.
Later, my father and his entire Home Army unit were forced to join the Russian-controlled Polish Army (Berling’s Army). He was put in command of a unit of Russian mortars. After the war, it was discovered that he had been part of Pilsudski’s Army in 1920, and so he was dismissed from the position he had managed to obtain, and was given the worst possible work. By the mid-1950s, when we found him through the Red Cross, he and his new family were starving - the result of poor pay and no access to the necessities of life.
AMNESTY AND THE HARDSHIPS OF ‘FREEDOM’
When the Poles at the camp learned of the ‘amnesty’, we immediately volunteered for the Polish Army and set off to cover the 6,000 miles to reach Uzbekistan, where the Army was being formed. Janina was told of the ‘amnesty’ days later. She immediately set out on foot, to cover the 25-30 kilometres to reach the camp, and reached the camp just as we were about to set off for the south. Several times along the route, my sisters and I lost track of each other. At Sverdlovsk I had been separated from them, when I went off to look for food. I had fainted and would probably have died there, except a train stopped next to the platform where I had fainted, and some women pulled me into their wagon and gave me kipiatok and a piece of bread, which revived me. It turned out that they were all from the Leningrad School of Home Economics, and when they heard that I was from Poland, they became quite overjoyed, and showered me with more food. They were being evacuated from the siege of Leningrad.
To catch up with the train that my sisters were on, I stole onto a train that was transporting Russian tanks. When it reached the next station, I jumped off and was quickly arrested by a young girl with a Russian rifle and bayonet, who took me for a spy. She brought me to the officer, and I showed him my release papers. He then berated the girl for arresting an ally of Russia.
I eventually caught up with my sisters and we made it to the kolkhoz near Tashkent. However, our 4-year old brother Richard was very ill by then, so I carried him on my back a long distance, to bring him to a hospital. I had no choice but to leave him there, with promises to come back and get him when he was better. I did go back 2 weeks later, but I was told that he had died and been buried in a communal grave next to the hospital. It broke my heart to learn this, and I went back to my sisters to tell them this painful news.
By now, Maria was very seriously ill and we were afraid that she would also die. I had earlier stolen a pair of Walonki (felt boot liners) at one of the stations where we had stopped. I was now able to exchange them for a pair of boots and 16 or 18 rubles. I used the money to buy goat’s milk for Maria, and this helped her recover.
We had reached Tashkent during winter, but the climate was much warmer than where we had previously been. The Polish Army had not yet reached Tashkent, so we had to work on a collective farm named for Jozef Stalin. We were paid a kg of wheat per day for the work that we did. We had to grind the wheat and make pancake-style bread with it. The kolkhoz eventually ran out of wheat, and there was no more food. Our Jewish neighbour, Szapiro, and I wanted to kill a wandering donkey for food, but neither of us managed to bring ourselves to do it.
JOINING THE POLISH ARMY
Eventually, I was called before the NKVD in Bukhara. I had to walk 10 km to get there, which took me nearly 10 hours. The town was full of people like me, badly dressed and hungry, all wanting to join the Polish Army. The lady who interviewed me sent me to two Polish doctors who checked me over. Even though I was so skinny that I could barely walk, I was assigned to the Heavy Artillery Unit, and I was told to stand in a line and wait.
I had had no choice but to leave my sisters at the kolkhoz. By the time that I managed to go back to find them, they were gone and no one could tell me where they were. Janina had somehow managed to nurse Maria back to health and, when they were able, they had also come to Bukhara. I later learned that they were among the civilians who were evacuated to Persia with the Polish Army, and I found Maria’s name on the list of evacuees that was published. I was able to write to her in Africa and learn what had transpired after I left.
Maria ended up working for the Polish Consul, while Janina first went to a sanitarium in the mountains, to regain her health, and then was sent to the orphanage in Valivade India. She then ended up in Santa Rosa, Mexico. Maria eventually went to Tengeru in Africa, and then joined the Polish Air Force in the UK, where she met Jan Osicki, who was in aircraft maintenance, and married him. She was one of the WAAFs responsible for the care and maintenance of the parachutes.
My transport landed in Iran on Easter Day in 1942. The passage over the Caspian Sea was particularly rough, and the ship had been gradually sinking. By the time we reached the port of Pahlavi, I was in water up to my chest! I must have fainted from exhaustion when I reached the shore. The next thing I knew, I was being carried by a man with a long black beard and a turban – a Sheik – who took me to a tent.
Once, while on guard duty in Teheran, I arrested a fellow who was stealing seven loaves of bread from the bakery. When I took him to the officer in charge, the officer let the fellow go and berated me instead, saying that this fellow had just arrived from the USSR and was still under the influence of what he had experienced there, so if he felt that he needed to steal the bread, then let him steal the bread.
I was assigned to a commando unit where I received very in-depth training, before being sent to defend the oil fields in Iraq. After some time in various assignments in the Middle East, we were told that we were shipping out to the Italian front.
After training and preparing in the Middle East, we were shipped to Italy. I learned languages quickly and was soon quite fluent in Italian. As a result of this, I would write letters for my comrades to their new Italian girlfriends, in return for various favors (a shave, a haircut, getting my boots shined, etc.) I did not drink and I did not smoke, so I spent my money on tutors to teach me Italian. The fact that I knew Italian so well meant that when we would capture a new area, I would be responsible for interviewing people and determining who was a spy and who was not.
During the Italian campaign, I participated in the battle of Monte Cassino, and in the Adriatic campaign, but I did not participate in the Battle of Bologna because, as we approached this city, I was removed from the front and sent to school in the southern part of Italy - in Allessano - to complete my high school education so that I could become an officer.
I had been wounded at the Battle of Monte Cassino and spent some time recuperating in the hospital, where I met a nurse who would later move to Montreal, and agree to be my wife.
I have often been asked how we as soldiers managed to fight in the Italian campaign, suffering such great losses in dead and injured, knowing that Poland had been betrayed. I have two answers to this question: first, we wanted to fight the Germans, because of what they had done to Poland; second, we figured that after years of fighting side by side with the allies, they would surely settle things honorably for Poland. Little did we realize that there would be no such outcome. There was also the fact that, had we refused to fight, we would have been disgraced in the eyes of the Allies, but more importantly, we would have given truth to the Russian propaganda that was portraying the Polish Second Corps as fascists who did not want to fight.
As part of the Intelligence Corps, I had a motorcycle and a quarter-ton truck with a driver, at my disposal. This is how I travelled from place to place, interrogating German prisoners that were caught, as well as carrying out other intelligence activities. At one point, while driving my motorcycle, I spotted a very tall German soldier in a field. He started waving to me, so I stopped and waited for him to come up to me. The front line was about 10 km farther, so I could not understand what he was doing here. I was fluent in 4 languages, but German was not one of them, so we communicated with sign language, and I understood that he was surrendering. To get him back to the camp, I decided that we should both ride on the motorcycle, but it was a small model, so having him in front of me made it impossible for me to drive, and we fell over. We both burst out laughing! Then I had him sit behind me, and not only did I let him carry his own rifle, but I also gave him my tommy gun! To everyone’s utter amazement, this is how we entered the camp. The commander immediately called me in and told me that never in his entire career had he seen something so stupid.
There was another example of a Ukrainian that I interrogated. He had been forced to serve the German army, carrying ammunition for them with a horse and cart. I jokingly said that we would have no choice but to shoot him or hang him, and he immediately volunteered to serve us in the same way that he had served the Germans. And he did. We gave him a Polish uniform, and whatever was asked of him, he immediately did. This goes to show how, even in the most inhuman of circumstances, one still needs to retain one’s humanity.
I also witnessed a circumstance when this was not the case. There was a wounded German soldier at Monte Cassino, who was bleeding profusely from a wound in his neck. A Polish officer bent over him in order to stop the blood. The German seized that moment to grab the officer’s gun from his holster and shot him. Here he was, surrounded by hundreds of Polish soldiers, yet his hatred was so deep that he chose to kill one last time. I can assure you that when the soldiers got through with him, there was nothing left to bury!
I was at the school in the south of Italy when I learned that I had been awarded the Virtuti Military medal for my participation in the Adriatic campaign. I was asked to present myself at such and such a place and there were 50 or 60 officers present. When they all saluted me, I thought that there had surely been some mistake, but they gave me the medal, and the ceremony was followed by a reception. There were some women at the reception and one of them asked me to tell her why I had been awarded the medal. I told her that this is something that cannot be answered, because if I downplay the reason, then the reaction will be that it was awarded in error and should not have been awarded for this unimportant matter. On the other hand, if I give a full blown description of the reason, then people may well think that I am exaggerating things. So I prefer to not answer the question, other than to say that the VM medal is awarded not only for personal bravery, but also for contributions to important strategic objectives. I also received the Cross of Valour, for acts of bravery at Monte Cassino.
When the war ended, I was again sent to the south of Italy to continue my education, and then was stationed in Montegranaro, Italy – at the halfway point of the Adriatic coast. My company commander decided that I should teach English to the rest of my company. We had all decided not to return to Poland, so we knew that English would be important for us. So here were 120 men, sitting on the side of a hill overlooking the orchards, and they were impossible to teach. They did not pay attention, they made various noises, they took naps – it was hopeless. The captain tried to show me that my teaching skills were at fault, but he had the same result. So we eventually gave up.
WORK CONTRACT IN CANADA
When I learned that Canada was accepting veterans on a 2-year farming contract, I decided to volunteer. I reached Canada in 1946, along with some 500 Polish veterans. We were quarantined in St Thomas Ontario for 2 weeks, before being sent to our respective work locations.
The years 1946 to 1948 proved to be among the worst years of my life. The conditions on the farm were horrible. Many of the veterans were injured by the Canadian farmers they were working for, worked under inhuman conditions, and received starvation diets. In total, 4,800 Poles had come to replace the 4,800 German POWs who had been working on these farms. As it turns out, the first farm where I was assigned was owned by a German-Canadian, whose father would regularly raise his hand and say Heil Hitler! On more than one occasion, his son had to pull me off him. I was soon reassigned to a different farm, but the conditions there were not any better.
I was working in the same area as a fellow named Sokolowski, who was a former officer and had been a lawyer in Poland. We had frequent chats and decided to do something to improve things for the Polish veterans. We called a meeting in London Ontario, and some 300 of the veterans came. We had written a speech and delivered it to the 300 veterans, as well as to the Labour representatives and the London press who attended. We were working 16 hours a day, and were maltreated and underfed. So we decided to form a union to defend our rights.
The London paper wrote an article about this. In response, the farmers sent delegates to the government to insist that no union be allowed, and the instigators should be removed from the area. Consequently, I was sent to work in the mines in the Kirkland Lake area (some 700 kilometers north of Toronto), along with 15 others who were also considered trouble makers.
EDUCATION – TEACHING – WRITING
When I completed my work contract, I moved to Montreal, where I was intending to marry my girlfriend who had come to Canada after serving with the Second Corps. She had also been deported, had joined the Polish Army, and had become a nurse. We met at the hospital in Italy where I had recovered from my wounds, and she was now working as a nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Sadly, she died of cancer before we could be married.
My sister Maria, her husband Jan and their 2-year old son Ryszard had moved to Montreal from England, and we were finally reunited. In 1950 we had a long-awaited reunion with our younger sister Janina, who joined us from Chicago, where she had lived since leaving the Santa Rosa colony in Mexico. I continued to try to locate our father, and finally managed to track him down through the Red Cross. It was 1953, and he had also been searching for his children; the Red Cross finally matched our letters, and put us in touch. He was living in Warsaw with his third wife and 4 sons, and they were in dire straits because Father could not earn a decent wage. The Communist authorities had learned of his participation in the Russian-Polish war in 1920 and punished him by restricting his ability to earn a decent wage. We all gathered our pennies and invited him to visit us in Canada, but he was too ill to travel, so I went to see him in Warsaw instead. He died soon after, and never did see Maria or Janina again.
I lived in Montreal, then Toronto, until 1961. During this time, my sisters pooled their resources and helped me complete my education. I completed a Masters of Arts in Philosophy at the Loyola College campus of the University of Montreal. I then attended McGill University and obtained my Teacher’s degree, specializing in Geography and Natural Science. I met my wife Natalia at the University of Toronto, and we were married in 1954; my daughter Jadwiga was born the following year, followed by my two sons, Lucjan and Kazimierz.
In 1961 I moved the family to St Catharines Ontario, where I taught Geography at Lakeport High School, eventually becoming the head of the Geography department. This is the position I retired from in 1985.
I have always been very involved with the Polish community and particularly with the Polish veterans, and have made a point to attend every commemorative event it was in my power to attend. In addition to publishing a number of articles in several magazines, I have written the following books:
“The History and Integration of Poles in Canada”
“Polish People in Canada - a Visual History”
“Wyrwani z kozeniami” (Polish version) – “The Uprooted” (English version): a semi-biographical account of my family’s deportation and my service in the Second Corps.
“Powojenny Wiatry”: a summary of the conditions endured by Second Corps veterans who served out their 2-year farming contracts in Canada.
A yet-unpublished book about the Women’s Auxiliary of the Polish Air Force.
Note: At the time of his sudden death in October 2012, Boleslaw was working on a new book about the women who joined the Polish branch of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in the UK. This included his older sister Maria and two of her closest friends, who all volunteered to join the WAAFs after recuperating from their Siberian ordeal in a Polish settlement in Africa.