by Thaddeus Jaroszewicz
During World War II, Poland was invaded by the Germans and the Soviet Union. Millions of Poles worked and perished in Nazi forced labor and death camps. Their stories have been widely chronicled in literature, film and museums. The eastern portion of Poland (today’s Belarus and parts of the Baltic countries) had a separate story of deportation, resettlement, imprisonment, suffering and death organized by the Soviet Union.
Between February 1940 and June 1941, over 1.5 million Poles and minorities (non-Russians) were deported in four waves to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union. Historians estimate that between one quarter and one third did not survive the ordeal. They died from cold, starvation, exhaustion or disease.
My grandparents and their seven children were taken from their home in the first wave of deportations that began on February 10, 1940. My mother was five at the time. This is a short overview of their journey of survival, and the historical background that led to their deportation.
For centuries, the land that makes up Central and Eastern Europe has been fought over by Poles, Swedes, Russians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans. In 1795, Poland was partitioned by the Austrians, Russians and Germans and disappeared from the political map of Europe. The Duchy of Warsaw briefly arose in 1807 during the Napoleonic Wars. Poles thought that the French would help them regain independence from their common enemies. Their hopes were dashed after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Warsaw reverted to Russia. Political uprisings and turmoil continued in the eastern part of Europe and Russia throughout the 19th century.
Poland regained its independence in 1918, after World War I, as part of the Treaty of Versailles. She then engaged in wars until 1921 with the Soviet Union and Lithuania to settle her eastern borders. Poland’s post-World War I western border with Germany caused endless diplomatic and economic disputes until Germany invaded in 1939. Polish domestic politics during the post-World War I period were also messy and contentious.
My grandparents Stanislaw and Victoria were ethnic Poles born in the 1890’s. When they met in 1920, she was a widow with a four year old daughter. He was a veteran of World War I. They were married in 1921 in Radom, a city 60 miles south of Warsaw. My grandfather was a serious, formal and rugged man. My grandmother was a gentle, pious woman. They had grown up in a land under Russian control. He had fought in World War I. They both witnessed the ravages of war. They were intent on having a family and helping to rebuild their newly-formed country.
By 1926, they had four children and were interested in buying land and operating a farm. In 1927, they bought 20 hectares (about 50 acres) near Baranovichi, Poland, 250 miles northeast of Warsaw. Baranovichi was in the eastern portion of the recently reconstituted country. It had been part of Tsarist Russia during the period of partition. It served as a rail hub for the Warsaw to Moscow line, as well as a north/south rail line from Vilnius to Lvov. As a result, it grew quickly after World War I, almost tripling in size from 11,000 in 1921 to almost 30,000 in 1939. It attracted Christian and Jewish Poles in equal numbers.
By the summer of 1939, my grandparents had two sons and five daughters in their home, ranging in age from 16 to 5. My grandmother’s oldest daughter had left to marry. Eighteen years into their marriage, they had a home, a successful farm and their children were being educated as Poles. Their success as land owners and their origin as Poles would prove to be a problem after the new war began in September 1939.
The Germans invaded Poland from the West on September 1, 1939. The Soviet Union followed from the East on September 17th. The Molotov Ribbentrop Pact enabled the Soviets to annex the eastern portion of Poland, where Baranovichi was located. Almost immediately, the NKVD (the 1930’s version of the KGB) began arresting, interrogating and imprisoning men in Baranovichi and surrounding towns and villages. Soviet soldiers looted farms of food, livestock, grain and furnishings.
Instructions for the deportation of “Anti-Soviet Elements” from Eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were finalized on October 11, 1939. Stalin’s goal was to rid his western border of Poles, especially landowners and business people, through resettlement, imprisonment or reeducation.
Landowners like my grandfather were one of 11 categories of people listed as “bourgeoisie” or “enemies of the people”. Others included former noblemen, factory owners, shopkeepers, citizens of foreign countries, priests, active worshipers of religious congregations, Trotskyites and Mensheviks. In the Soviet era, these were the usual suspects.
Also listed for deportation in 1940 were approximately 20,000 Polish military and intelligence officers. On March 5th, 1940, the head of the Soviet Secret Police wrote a memorandum to Joseph Stalin, recommending a trial and “the supreme penalty: shooting” for this category of Poles. These officers became the victims of the Katyn Forest Massacre.
On February 10, 1940, the knock on the door came before daybreak for my grandparents and their large family. Soviet soldiers entered their home, ordered everyone into one room, searched the premises for weapons, and barked instructions for packing up. They were told they were going to be taken to a new place. The same drill was carried out relentlessly across Poland’s eastern region. Families could take what they could carry or fit onto a sleigh. They needed to be ready in a few hours. Each family was limited to 100 kilos – approximately 220 pounds of food, clothing, kitchen utensils, farm implements and any items that might be useful in a new settlement.
On that cold Saturday morning, my grandparents and their children traveled 12 miles with their belongings to the train station in Baranovichi. Hundreds of neighbors and people from surrounding villages formed the column that trudged to the train station. Across eastern Poland, approximately 320,000 were rounded up and moved in the days following February 10, 1940 – 160 train loads of people and their limited possessions. My grandfather’s land and home were confiscated by the Soviets. No reparations were ever paid.
At the train station, people were herded into box cars. Although official Soviet instructions limited the number of people to 25 people per car, a typical car was loaded with 40 or 50. Families did the best they could to stay together. Each family’s belongings, other than the food, clothing and blankets they carried with them, were thrown into separate cars.
Most of the boxcars had planks that served as bunks for many but not all passengers. There were no toilets. Holes torn from the floor served as latrines. Most cars had only small windows with bars and a small pot-bellied stove. Little or no fuel was provided. The sliding doors of each box car were locked shut once each was full. My family’s train waited in the station for three days.
My mother’s recollection of the three week journey east is foggy. She remembers the cold and people scraping ice off the sides and top of the cars for water. She recalls the hole in the floor that served as the toilet. She says they were packed into the car like standing sardines. People would pick up small bits of coal at refueling stations that were used to fire the small stoves. In many instances, the planks that served as bunks were torn up and used for heating fuel.
Diaries and essays written by survivors describe various aspects of stench, cold (or stifling heat for those deported in Spring/Summer 1940/1941), hunger, thirst, illness and lice. There were moments of kindness and hope. Women gave birth. Babies rarely survived. Strangers shared food, taking care to distribute small portions to extend the limited supplies. No one knew where they were going, or how long it would take. Many did not survive the journey. Death was unceremonious. Dead bodies were simply thrown off trains at refueling stations. People prayed, sang hymns, cried and were frightened.
My grandfather’s family travelled about 800 miles east to a settlement near Gorki, which is now called Nizhny Novgorod. They were assigned to live in basic barracks with several other families. My grandfather and his four older children went to work cutting and gathering lumber. They were paid 400 grams of bread per day, when bread was available, and a very modest wage in rubles. They scrounged and traded for food. My mother recalls occasionally eating hard millet intended for horses. My grandfather and his oldest son killed a dog by squeezing its head in a door, which they cooked and ate. Descriptions by children who survived similar journeys often reference dogs being killed for food.
Conditions were miserable in the winter, and barely tolerable in the summer. Lice and bed bugs were a constant problem, as were mosquitoes in the warm months. Several months into their stay, a typhoid epidemic broke out in their settlement. They were moved about 300 miles north to another settlement near Vologda.
Younger children who could not work were required to attend school. They were taught by Russian teachers, with particular emphasis on ridding the young Poles of their belief in God. Unlike the Germans in Western Poland, the Soviets made a concerted effort to reeducate the young Poles on the wonders of the Soviet way of life. My mother and her younger brother attended these schools near their settlements. She always refers to their curriculum as “brainwashing”.
In June 1941, Hitler reneged on his bargain with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin scrambled to make a new alliance with western powers. As part of the overall agreement with the Allies, Stalin worked out an Amnesty agreement with the Polish Government in Exile. The Amnesty, signed in August 1941, provided freedom for many but not all Poles who had been deported to the Soviet Union. Stalin also agreed to permit the formation of a Polish Army in the Soviet Union comprised of deported Poles. General Walter Anders was freed from the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow to lead the Army in Exile. The lack of officers, a result of the Katyn massacre, made the organization of an army complex. At the time, Soviets blamed the Germans for the disappearance of the officers.
For the Poles living in settlements, gulags and labor camps, the Amnesty meant freedom and a chance to fight for their country. Tragically, not all deported Poles were freed, or made aware of the Amnesty. Diaries of survivors recount that the Russians were not particularly eager to see their cheap labor leave the camps. My grandfather’s family was among the fortunate. They left their settlement near Vologda in October 1941.
Their first destination was Kuybyshev (now called Samara), which served as an alternate Soviet capital in the event Moscow was taken over by the Germans. The Communist Party, many government functions, and embassies, including the Polish Embassy, had moved there in the second half of 1941. Neither the Soviets nor the Polish government in exile had made any transit arrangements for the exiled Poles to get to Kuybyshev. They were on their own. The journey from various resettlement and prison camps to Kuybyshev and then the meeting points for the new Army proved to be as miserable, challenging, dangerous and deadly as the train rides of 1940.
One of my mother’s older sisters recalls that they travelled from Vologda to Kuybyshev, a 1,000 mile journey, principally by boat. They stayed there for a brief period, and then traveled 100 miles east by train to Buzuluk, where the Army was being organized. At Buzuluk my mother’s oldest brother Adam, who was then 18, left their family to join the Army. The rest of the family stayed in Buzuluk for three months. My aunt says they were treated well by the Allies. She recalls going to a New Year’s Eve dance with American soldiers.
After Buzuluk, they embarked on a trip that took them several months to complete. They travelled by foot, horse carts, trucks and trains for 1,500 miles through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and finally to Krasnovodsk, Turkmenistan (now Turkmenbasy). They begged, traded, or stole food and water. They also worked on collective farms, including as cotton pickers. There were long stretches of time where little or no food or safe water was available. The land was harsh. The population of dark-skinned Asians seemed strange to them. Along the way, my grandfather joined an Engineering Corps of the Polish Army, in Kermine, Uzbekistan (now Navoi). His oldest daughter joined a Polish Army Corps of women.
After reaching Krasnovodsk, my grandmother and the remaining four girls and one boy boarded a ship to the port of Pahlavi, near Tehran. There they were placed in a refugee camp organized by the British. A little more than two years after being taken from their home in Baranovichi, they had reached a place where they had reliable access to food, shelter, clothing and medical attention. With help from the British, the Polish-government-in-exile, and various relief organizations, Poles in the refugee camps organized schools, churches and scouting organizations.
My grandparents and their family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Poles, survived 18 months of enslavement and hard labor under horrific conditions. Hundreds of thousands did not live to tell their stories. To their knowledge, my grandparents’ family of seven children was the only one from their original town that survived the experience intact. My grandfather always said he thought they all survived because my grandmother had prayed so hard.
In late 1943, my grandmother and five children travelled again, from Tehran to Karachi. They boarded a ship bound for Mombasa, Kenya. The British had organized a refugee camp near Arusha, Tanzania, 240 miles west of Mombasa. They lived in a large camp for Displaced People, with a clear view of Mount Meru. There were about 4,000 other Polish refugees – mostly women, children and older men. My mother’s family lived in a round, thatch roofed hut, in a beautiful jungle setting. They became part of a Polish community in exile that operated much like any small town in Poland, with schools, a church and several civic organizations, including scouting and theater. The Poles commitment to educate their children and pass on their cultural and religious heritage was unwavering. Grammar schools and technical schools for teens prepared the young for higher education or trades. Many worked in the nearby towns of Arusha and Nairobi.
In 1948, the family left Africa for England, where they reunited with my grandfather and their older sister and brother, who had until then been on active military duty. The two older girls married and stayed in England. The rest left for America in 1952. They settled in Cleveland. My mother met my father (who had a similar journey, albeit via German labor camps) in 1955, and they married in 1956.
My grandparents had an incredible journey of survival. They fought fiercely to keep their family intact and alive. They always struck me as people who endured without complaining. Their children produced 34 grandchildren. My grandmother died in 1971, at the age of 77, of natural causes. In what seemed like the ultimate unfair fate, my grandfather was murdered in his home in Cleveland in 1982, by teenagers engaged in a robbery. He was 86.
My aunt, Regina Lozowska, now 87and living in Lens, France
My aunt, Maria Hatala, now 84 and living in Calgary, Alberta
My mother, Danuta Jaroszewicz, now 77, living in Cleveland, Ohio
By Thaddeus Jaroszewicz