When the war started, the Plowys were living in Nehrybaka, Poland, a farm village just southeast of Przemysl near the border with Ukraine. The family grew sugar beets and stored grain, and their orchard produced apples, pears and cherries. They raised cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and pigeons and sold produce, milk, eggs and animals, contributing to a comfortable life. Their world changed after the Nazi army invaded from the west and Soviet troops from the east in 1939.
His mother, Josefa, was seven months pregnant when the family, including his sister Helen, was given 20 minutes on Feb. 10, 1940, to pack a few items and board a cattle car on a train heading east into the depths of the USSR. Julian was born in the squalor of a work camp in Chmielicha.
Soviet leaders removed ethnic Poles and some Polish Jews from eastern Poland and the Plowy family was among those who lost their homes and livelihood. Plowy said that relatives in western Poland, under German control, were not removed.
Plowy has no memories of his family's two-and-a-half years in Siberia. He later learned that life was difficult: the Poles had few possessions, performed hard labour and even hid food.
In 1942, an agreement between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet Union announced a type of amnesty that allowed the Poles to leave Siberia. The family undertook another harrowing journey to reach the southern USSR where the Polish Army was being formed.
His father, Wawrzyniec, joined the Polish 2nd Corps but died of typhus very soon after the army reached Tehran, Iran. It was two days after Julian`s second birthday. Julian`s older brother Tadeusz also joined the Polish 2nd Corps and he fought in the Italian Campaign.
After spending some time in Iran, the family was sent to India where Julian, his mother, and his sister eventually boarded the USS Hermitage in Mumbai, India, that brought them to the U.S. after a stop in New Zealand.
When they traveled from Siberia to freedom, they didn't know what was really going to await them. When they got to Tehran (Iran), it was better, but it was still very poor and a meager existence. So, they were all holding on to their precious possessions that they could possibly carry. They were afraid they were going to lose everything and they didn't know what was going to happen next.
Polish leaders petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt in advance of the refugees’ arrival in California, to allow them to stay in the U.S. because the country's large Polish-American community could provide much-needed support and assistance. Roosevelt refused, however, saying labor unions would complain that the newcomers would take jobs from Americans. A deal eventually was brokered between Polish
Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski and Mexican President Manuel Avila Comacho to accept these displaced Poles. Countries, including the U.S., provided financial assistance.
The first group of 706 Poles were housed in Santa Anita Park, a horse tracing track in Arcadia, California, east of Los Angeles, that had been used for various purposes during the war. They eventually boarded a train to their destination in Mexico. The windows of the train were blocked so the Poles could not see where they were going. The practice resurrected memories of the forced displacement to Siberia.
They didn't understand why we were being taken from the U.S. and going to Mexico. Changing trains in El Paso, Texas, the weary Poles arrived to a gracious welcome in Leon in July 1943. The refugees were housed in an unused school building at a former hacienda that was renamed Colonia Santa Rosa. A second contingent of 726 followed Nov. 2.
Plowy was 3 years old then. It was 1943. He, his mother and older sister, were among 1,432 Poles who were resettled in Colonia Santa Rosa in Leon, Mexico, following a harrowing period in the Soviet Gulag. They were met with a band and people in good clothes, wishing them happiness. They were overwhelmed.
They didn't expect anything. All they expected was just a little peace from the war. They had no expectation except hopefully they wouldn't have to hide from the bullets and they waited for Poland to be free. They understood they would be going back to Poland when Poland was free. But Poland came under Communist rule after the war, and the family never returned to Poland.
Plowy found his time at Colonia Santa Rosa enjoyable. Seven Felician sisters — formally, the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice — taught Polish, English, math and other classes. Recreational activities, games and trips to a local pool helped kids become kids again after years of harrowing experiences.
The Plowy family had friends in Paterson, New Jersey, and moved there in 1947. Plowy recalled being a troublesome child and his mother felt a male role model would help her son. They moved to Buffalo, New York, where she remarried. It was a mistake because the man was an alcoholic. But there, Plowy enrolled in Catholic school and even entered a high school seminary for a year.
After graduation from St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, south of Buffalo, Plowy enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving from 1958 to 1962. Plowy returned to Buffalo, but a friend invited him San Diego and six months later he made the move, found work and eventually met his future wife, Theresa. They have two children, Justine and Jason, and four grandchildren, all in Southern California.
In retirement, Plowy has worked to chronicle the lives of the Polish refugees in the Gulag. He has uncovered photos, diaries and "autograph books" with recollections, drawings, poetry and messages of hope reflecting the difficult days in forced labor. He has compiled a database that he makes available to anyone interested in the history of the period.
Copyright: Julian Plowy