DANUTA (MĄCZKA) GRADOSIELSKA
A Member of the Women's Auxiliary in the Polish 2nd Corps during WW2
Life in the Kresy
I grew up on Osada Krechowiecka, in Wolyn; a settlement consisting of 130 farms, shared by ex-soldiers, set up in 1921. Father first lived in a dug-out, then built a simple wooden house with a thatched roof. We eventually had a stable for horses, a cowshed, a pigsty, as well as Chinchilla rabbits, chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, and pet dogs and cats. A large orchard, a fish pond and bee hives added to our various crops, including sugar beets and tobacco.
I was born on 21 March 1925, and had a younger sister Zosia, an older brother Bogus, and a step-brother Tadeusz. In 1937 we moved into our new red-brick 3-bedroom house, with a large kitchen, proper oven, 2 tiled fire-places, a large sitting-room, and a bathroom with a big wooden bath. My sister and I shared a room in the attic. Two basement cellars kept supplies for the winter. During the war, the settlement was completely destroyed but somehow, our house was left standing and is there to this day!
The settlers built a huge church and a community centre, which housed the school, central dairy, post office, telephone operator, savings bank, co-operative shop, grain warehouse, and several association and organization offices. The school included 7 classes, for 250 children. Older children, attending ‘Gimnazjum’ or trade schools, lived in nearby Rowne. We all lived happy, peaceful, idyllic lives.
On 1 Sept 1939, the Germans attacked Poland from the west and 17 days later the Soviets invaded from the east, under the pretence of helping us fight Germany. Russian tanks passed through our settlement. The invasion was a great shock to everyone. No one knew what to do; there was no information, no instructions. We felt deserted by Polish Officials; we did not yet know then that they had been arrested. Trainloads of Polish soldiers were shipped to the USSR. Wolyn was joined to the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR and the Ukrainian Committee was formed.
Our homes were frequently checked, while we were locked in one room, at gunpoint. I do not know what they were looking for, as they turned everything upside down, and tore up floorboards. They made lists of the contents and took what they said was ‘extra’. They called this “the re-distribution of wealth”. Protesting would mean certain arrest, or being shot.
I was 14 years old. Schools were either closed or became Soviet schools. Crosses and holy pictures were torn down, we were forbidden to pray or sing Polish songs, but we did not stop. They shouted that Poland did not exist and never would; that they were masters now. They were creating a Ukraine that would be completely subservient to them.
We were ordered to leave our home in October. We were allowed to take personal possessions, bedding, a few items of furniture, our two dogs, but no livestock. We left our beloved home and farm, not knowing if we would ever return. We rented rooms from a friendly Jew in nearby Tuczyn. Our servants remained on the farm and secretly brought us the promised food supplies from our cellar, which were very useful later. The NKWD continued to check lists of family members and possessions. We had to report weekly to the militia. My parents feared that something else would happen, though no one knew what.
I felt very deeply all that was happening; this was the end of my carefree childhood. Leaving our home was just the beginning. During the night of Saturday, 10 February 1940, came the knock on the door ……
Deported to the USSR
We were awakened at 6 am by two armed Ukrainian policemen and an NKWD officer, who read the order of deportation and told us to pack our things and be ready in two hours - we were being sent to Siberia. They told us to dress warmly and take food, bedding, and tools. We only had an axe - our tools were all at the farm. The snow was deep and it was extremely cold. I wanted to take our little sheepdog with us, but this was not possible. We loaded all our possessions on one sledge and sat on the other. Our sheepdog tried to follow us, but the deep snow proved too much for his little legs, and my heart filled with grief.
At Lubomirka station, we were herded into a cattle wagon with 36 other people. The train moved out during the night, and we all wondered what would happen to us. During a 2 day stop-over in Równe, more families were loaded onto our train, and we were given water, and coal for the stove. At Zdolbunow station, we changed to Soviet cattle wagons that were larger and ran on wider tracks. They pushed 72 people into each wagon, making it very cramped and stuffy, with very little air and light coming through the two grilled windows. There were two levels of wooden bunks on both ends of the wagon. I lay on my stomach on the top bunk, peering through the window-slit, making notes in my dairy. In the middle of the wagon was a round iron stove, screwed to the floor. A hole in the floor was for the purposes of hygiene; for the sake of decency my Father screened it off with a blanket.
At 11 pm on 15 Feb 1940, we crossed the border singing the hymn “God Who Protects Poland” and the Polish National Anthem. Everyone was crying. We were occasionally given coal and water, sometimes potatoes, and we managed to cook meals from our own supplies. At some stops we were given soup, bread, semolina or cereal.
Figure 3 Drawing of the inside of a cattle car by T. Sobierajski
The adults were very worried, but we children were beginning to treat all this as a great adventure: maybe someone would free us or rescue us. We collected snow, thawing it on the stove, so we could wash. One older woman died in our wagon; her body was left on the outside platform and taken at the next station to be buried. The cold was very severe and, during the night, my hair froze to the wagon walls.
When we reached Gorki, a few wagons were detached and sent due north. The train stopped at Kotlas, on the frozen Dwina River, where we were unloaded. We slept on the crowded floor of a school, sitting on our belongings; it was difficult to sleep as there was much coughing and crying. In the morning, sledges arrived and families began departing into the unknown. On the second morning, our stepmother Helena had a very high fever, and the doctor diagnosed pneumonia. She was sent to the hospital in Kotlas, and we had to continue to our destination without her.
Life in the Soviet Camps
We arrived at the Kotowalsk camp near Kotlas, in the Archangelsk region, on 1 March 1940. We had ridden sleighs, walked in a snowstorm, and ridden a train to get there. About 200 people were packed into one large barrack; the elderly and the children were becoming ill, but there was no doctor.
All the men were given saws and axes to work in the forest. They were paid in roubles. We were alone for a week while Father went to retrieve Helena from Kotlas. Someone robbed Father of all his money in Kotlas, including money that friends had given him for shopping. Father worked hard so as to repay them.
For Easter, we managed to buy one egg, which my Father blessed with a drop of holy water from home, and shared with us. We prayed to God and the Holy Mother of Czestochowa, asking for a change in our lives.
We were moved to a better camp called “Stacja Molodyk” camp, where we shared a hut with three families (16 persons), and now slept on a bunk-bed instead of the floor. As I had turned 15, I had to start work. Girls had to clear snow from the railway line, and were paid 3 roubles a day. I later worked at removing branches from felled trees.
The next camp, housing some 600 people (92 families) was close to Priwodino on the Dwina River, just south of Kotlas. The enormous gate at the camp entrance was surrounded by a tall wooden stockade with guard towers at its corners, and it looked like a prison. But the towers contained no guards and the gate was only locked at night. There was a sawmill outside the camp and we now worked with timber brought from the forest. Men cut railway sleepers or building materials, while girls stripped the bark and cut the logs into props and pit-supports.
Each family had separate quarters in the barracks; we had a large room with two bunk beds, a small kitchen and a tiny cellar. We collected hay for mattresses and used down quilts and pillows from home. Young children went to school; older ones worked. Without work, one did not get a bread ration. Workers were paid very little and had to buy their own food, which was expensive, so we had to rely on what we found in the forest or grew ourselves. The canteen served a soup of either boiled water and fish heads, or pieces of cabbage. The oil-fried pancakes were too expensive to buy.
Zosia and Tadzio were attending school, and reported that the teacher had asked if they believe in God. Only the Polish children raised their hands. The teacher then asked them to pray for bread. After a short wait the teacher said “no bread, no God”. The teacher then asked “Who believes in Stalin?” The Russian children raised their hands. The teacher asked them to pray to Stalin for bread. A woman immediately entered the classroom carrying a tray with slices of bread, given only to the children who had prayed to Stalin.
The camp Commandant treated us relatively well. On days off, I was allowed to collect berries and mushrooms in the forest. We had a small plot of soil where we planted potatoes, onions, cucumber and beans. People worked either on the collective farm, in the saw-mill or in the forest; many were sick, and many died.
In October, Tadzio broke his leg at school and ended up in the hospital in Kotlas, then Zosia was laid up with flu. We were very happy when we received a parcel from grandmother in Wolyn, since it contained communion bread, honey, sugar, biscuits, and vegetable seeds that Helena would plant in the spring. This would provide vitamins we so badly needed.
On Christmas Eve, Father and I set out to visit Zosia at the hospital in Priwodino, to share communion bread with her. The nurse told us “Zosia is already covered” and my Father broke into tears. When the sheet was lifted I saw Zosia’s pale face, realised what had happened, and also started to cry. We were told that Zosia had died 45 minutes earlier. Father took her home, made a coffin, and buried her on Christmas Day in the cemetery at Monastyriok. Poor Zosia, she was only 14.
Towards the end of our time in Monastyriok Father managed to buy a cow and calf, so we finally had meat, milk and butter, which cleared the sores on my arms and legs caused by scurvy.
In August 1941, the Sikorski-Majewski agreement brought ‘amnesty’ for all Polish citizens in the Soviet Union. We felt that God had heard our prayers. The first discharge documents from our settlement were issued on 5 September, but not for us. Bogus and 6 friends were determined to join the Polish Army. But train stations were crowded, there were not enough wagons for everyone, and without documents they would not qualify for food en route. Nevertheless, they escaped on 14 Nov.
We were no longer paid for our work, only given 800 grams of bread and watery soup, but those who didn’t work got only 100 grams. Hunger stalked the remaining 12 families. Soviet soldiers arrived, so we were squashed into one hut. Christmas was a sad time as we had nothing but a few pieces of dry bread to eat, and the sad memory that Zosia had died a year ago.
We received our papers on 27 December, so Father collected Tadzio from the hospital, and we travelled to the crowded Kotlas station by sledge the next day. We had paid the 80 rubles per person for our wagon (7 families, 28 persons) and were given 400 grams of bread and some soup. The train set off on 2 Jan 1942. It was a great feeling of freedom, with no armed guards or locked doors.
Our journey took about 6 weeks. At Tashkent, Father went to buy bread and was left behind with all our documents. We turned back at Dzalal-abad and were deliriously happy to find him. We reached the Polish Army at Guzar, Uzbekistan on 22 Feb 1942, where Father found Bogus, in hospital recovering from typhoid.
Not quite 17, I I was told I was too young to join. So I went back, said I was 18, and was accepted into the Polish Women’s Auxiliary Service (PWSK). At first, I received a man’s uniform that was far too big, and I kept losing the shoes as I walked. I embroidered the Polish eagle badge on my cap myself. Later, I received a proper Women’s Auxiliary Service uniform.
On 27 March, we took a passenger train to Krasnovodsk, where we boarded a cargo boat overloaded with 5,000 soldiers. Civilians were on the next vessel; among them Mother, Father and Tadzio. A lot of people were ill, mainly with typhoid and dysentery. There was a lack of water and lack of toilets, and many had to relieve themselves over the side. Many died on the very threshold of freedom.
We landed at Pahlevi, Persia and occupied tents on the warm, sandy beach. Persians sold boiled eggs, figs and dates, but we were advised against buying these as our shriveled stomachs needed time to get used to richer food. We were sent to the baths, leaving our possessions behind in the tents. After disinfecting baths, we were shown to new tents, as the previous tents and all our possessions were burned. Luckily, I had kept a small case with documents, photos, and my diary with me.
Iran and Iraq
We arrived in Teheran and came under British command on 1 April 1942. A few days later my parents arrived with Tadzio, who went directly to hospital to have surgery to fix his leg. Father joined the army and departed almost at once for South Africa, Canada and Scotland, escorting German POWs.
I became ill with typhoid during a nursing course held by the Polish Red Cross. I was unconscious or delirious for weeks, in a Hindu hospital. I was in very bad shape, my hair fell out, I was blind for a while, and I had to learn to walk again. I spent 2 weeks convalescing in the civilian camp where Helena and an aunt were staying. My friends had finished the nursing course and were working in hospitals. As I had very neat handwriting, I was assigned to the Transport Office.
I left for Iraq, with the Transport Company, in October 1942. We underwent basic training, and we sang a lot. On 5 Jan 1943 we arrived in Rehovoth, Palestine for a 3-month Heavy Vehicle Course, learning to take everything apart and put it back together, and then learning to drive them. I had to sit on folded blankets to see through the windscreen. In March, we took the train to Cairo to collect vehicles for the men’s transport company, and drove the trucks back to Palestine. I served in 318 Transport Company PWSK with 233 other women, delivering supplies and food. It then became the 316 Transport Corps, with new commanders. In Feb 1944, we left for Egypt, then at the end of April we boarded the Stefan Batory on our way to Italy…..
The Italian Campaign
The 316 Transport Company arrived in Taranto, Italy on 4 May 1944, receiving 143 new 3-ton Dodge trucks and Thompson revolvers. We mostly drove along the Adriatic coast, with provisions, fuel, ammunition, and equipment. Usually 7-8 trucks travelled together, with 2 drivers on long trips, and often had only dry food for weeks on end. We drove to the second front line, then the men’s transport company drove to the first front. The terrain was mountainous, with winding roads and steep drops. To avoid German planes, we usually drove at night, without lights, following the truck in front of us. At 18, I was too young to realize just how dangerous this was.
In May, we drove supplies and ammunition to Monte Casino. We transported wounded soldiers to the Polish military hospital no. 3, and took POWs to the camps.
We were paid £1.50 for ten days’ work: enough for a coffee and cake, toothpaste, shoe polish, nylon stockings, and for the collection in church. We had very little free time, but attended some dances, where we were far outnumbered by the men and danced non-stop. Once, 8-10 of our trucks carrying ammunition ended up at the front line by mistake. An angry Colonel shouted at us to turn around immediately. We drove off very quickly, and a bomb fell on the exact spot we had been. The Germans had been watching us!
In April 1945, the company was transferred to Forli, where we delivered to Polish, British and Canadian troops. Here I met a handsome officer called Jerzy, who immediately told me that he had dreamt he would marry a girl named Danuta.
Our operations ceased on 3 May and the end of the war was proclaimed 5 days later.
Marriage, Studies, and the move to England
On 19 Aug 1945, I married 2nd Lt. Jerzy Gradosielski, a sapper from 5 KDP, at the St George Cathedral in Porto San Giorgio, close to Loretto. The Mayor had arranged for our wedding reception in a palace garden, and the tables and chairs were placed on a Bailey bridge (the sappers/engineers built these during the war). We had a wonderful honeymoon in Venice and Lake Como.
In October, I was transferred from the 316 Transport Company to the Army Grammar School in Porto San Giorgio. It was the same place we had had our wedding party. I was happy to be back at school, but we had to make up what we had missed during the war in a very short time, studying intensely. In July 1946, I received my certificate and was promoted to the IV class. Soon after, all the students of the army schools in Italy were transported on the luxury liner Empress of Australia to Great Britain.
We landed in Liverpool on 18 Aug 1946 and we were housed in the PKPR camp at Foxley. We lived in single-story barracks and had to learn a new language, new customs, learn a trade, earn a living, and build a family. One of the barracks was converted into a social club; another was a Catholic chapel. We resumed our Catholic traditions: Holy Mass, processions, weddings and baptisms, and First Holy Communion. We met old friends from Poland and from the war. Here, I learned English, and completed my secondary education.
In May 1947 I joined my husband in the Hermitage Camp near Newbury. He had been learning English and training as an electrical technician. At Easter, we travelled to Edinburgh, where my father was stationed, so that I could introduce my new husband to my parents. We also visited Wojtek, the soldier bear, at the Zoo. I had seen him in Palestine when he was living the life of a soldier, and remember that he had happy eyes. I could see that his eyes were now sad. Poor Wojtek - confined to a cage after the life of freedom he had enjoyed during the war, even carrying ammunition during the Battle of Monte Casino.
Our first daughter was born in June 1948 in the Polish military hospital in Penley. In April 1949, we moved to London where Jerzy started work. The army had given me £25 to buy civilian clothes but Jerzy used it to buy a radio, which turned out for the best, because I listened to a daily program “Mrs. Dales Diary” and improved my English and learnt all about shopping, English measures and money, etc.
Jerzy bought a house in east London, without even going inside; it had gas, but no electricity, no hot water, and no bathroom. He soon wired and renovated it all, and we lived there for ten years. We later found a very large house, in very bad condition and at a low price. We made ends meet, by renting out rooms on the top floor.
My brother Stefan Bogus and his family lived near Southend, Essex, and Tadeusz lived in Toronto, Canada. My Father died in 1974, and my husband Jerzy died on 30 July 1989. My step-mother Helena died on 27 October 1999, my step-brother Tadeusz died 30 December 2013, and my brother Stefan Bogus died 5 November 2014.
I am still living in Forest Gate. We had six children, and currently have eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I have always been, and continue to be, active in Polonia activities - particularly events commemorating the Polish Second Corps.