Edwarda (nee Szczygiel) FIJAL
Women's Auxiliary of the Polish 2nd Corps
LIFE IN KRESY
I was born on the 10th of October 1924 in the village of Godowa, in Lwow province. My father Wladyslaw Szczygiel’s family had lived in this village for many generations. My mother Helena (nee Lyszczarz) also came from this village, although her family lived on the south side of the village, nearer the town of Szczyzow. I attended a school that was 1.5 km from our home where, before the war, I completed 7 years of grade school. I had two younger brothers, Gienek and Edek, who are no longer with us; they died here in Canada.
My village was a very large one, with a very large population of children and youth. My father, like many of the other fathers, did not have the means to send me to high school, so a special girls’ school was organized in Szczyzow. The high school students would finish their classes for the day, and we would then attend classes for the next 3 or 4 hours. In the first year, we were taught religion, embroidery, and bookkeeping. I only attended that one year, because my father was given a small farm on a settlement in the Tarnopol area.
Poles were in the minority in parts of the Eastern Borderlands, and the government wanted to correct this situation. So they seized the properties of landowners who did not pay their taxes, and lived outside the country. One of these landowners was a Jewish man named Kimelman. The government took over his land and parceled it out to settlers like my father, who had fought in the Frist World War and the Russian-Polish war of 1920.
The settlement was called Liczkowce, in the Husiatyn district of the Tarnopol province. It was located on the banks of the Zbrucz River. The settlement consisted of 37 families, each with a homestead on 1.5 acres of land, plus 10 hectares of land for cultivation. The homes and outbuildings had all been built by the government. We lived in a lovely brick house and had a good life there.
We were only allowed to swim to the middle of the Zbrucz River, because the other side belonged to the Russians. Things were very friendly with the Russians on the other side; we would regularly wave to each other; there were no tensions at the time.
The night before the Russian invasion, there was a torrential downpour and lots of thunder and lightning. Our house was located on a hilltop, overlooking the river, and we could see two roads on the Russian side. My father noticed that there were transport trucks constantly travelling on these roads. As this was very unusual, he and another man went to the Border Guard offices and reported that something strange was happening on the Russian side. The captain called the Husiatyn office and was told that the Russians were carrying out routine maneuvers.
My room was on the second floor, and the rain and thunder kept me from falling asleep that night. I eventually dozed off and was awakened at around 3 a.m. by a shot. I jumped out of bed and looked out. I could see that our dog had been shot. This is how it all started. The Russians had installed a pontoon bridge across the river, and the armoured vehicles were coming across in droves. They did not care what they trampled in their path – some crops were still in the fields, and they just rode right over them.
Polish soldiers were arrested and brought to the Kimelman estate. They were kept within the walls of the estate. The women of the settlement baked bread and prepared other foods that we would bring to the wall, and the Polish soldiers would use ropes and pulleys to get everything over the wall. This went on for some time, and then the soldiers were taken from there and transported to Russia.
Life on the settlement continued as normal for a while. We continued to tend the livestock and live as normal a life as possible. Then, just before Christmas, a band of Ukrainians came; they were armed with farm implements, and tried to oust us from our homes. Our people somehow managed to defend us. But this was not the end of hostilities. The Polish villagers told us that the Ukrainians were continuing to organize and were intent on attacking us.
When my father heard this, he and another man went to Husiatyn to report this to the Border Guard, but the offices there were already closed, and the soldiers had been arrested. So they reported this to the Russian authorities, and a Russian soldier came from Husiatyn, and met the band of Ukrainian marauders on the road as they approached the settlement. He had a machine gun, and told them that if one of them lays a hand on the settlers, he will be shot. So the Ukrainians backed off.
DEPORTED TO SIBERIA
We were deported on the 10th of February 1940. Among those who came for us were a Jewish man that we knew, and a Ukrainian. They lined us up against a wall and told us that we were being sent back to the Rzeszow area. Then a Russian came in and told my mother to take all we could from the larder, take our tools, and most importantly take warm clothing. So we knew that we were not going back to the Rzeszow area, but we were going to Siberia. We three kids were crying - I was 15 years old at the time – it was a chaotic and frightening end to our carefree childhood.
They loaded us onto sleighs, and took us to the Husiatyn station, where we were loaded into a cattle car. We waited there for three days, as they brought more and more people from the surrounding areas. In the end, there were 42 people in our wagon. We travelled in this wagon for at least 3 weeks. From time to time they would let someone out at a station to bring a pail of water, and occasionally they gave us some soup. My family had occupied the upper berth, and I would look out the tiny barred window and observe the stations we went through and the general direction in which we were heading.
It is through this window that I noticed my future husband Marian. He was wearing his Polish military uniform, and I had a real weakness for men in uniform. I would look out the window at every stop to see if he would go by. The train was divided at Kulicze, and I wondered if he was still on the same train with us, or if he had been part of the group had been sent elsewhere. As it turns out, he was still part of our transport, and we ended up in the very same place. (We have been together for 72 years, other than the war years when he was in England and I was in the Middle East).
We reached Bolszczaj Rzeczka, in Altai Krai, where the railway tracks ended. We were then transported on horse-drawn sleighs, and reached camp Nr.158 the next day. My family lived in one of the largest barracks. There were separate rooms for families, and one large room for those who were single. Mr. Sztencil, the forester, lived in this large room. He was with us the entire time, and my mother took care of him because he was sick and alone. He could not work, so he received only a small ration of bread, and sometimes a bit of soup.
Trying to supplement our rations was a difficult task, as the forest around us was barren. There were no berries, and only one type of mushroom – a large white one. You could not eat these like other mushrooms. You needed to salt them and put them in a barrel to marinate, and then you would eat them like a piece of meat.
Some of the Russians, who worked at the camp, grew some vegetables, so Mother managed to sneak into the gardens a few times and pick the leaves from the bean plants to make some soup. We also had a large sack of flour with us, that Mother would form into balls and boil– this was our soup.
Mother spent two weeks in jail because she had sold a clock to the Russian lady who was in charge of baking bread. Mother had sold it to her in exchange for some flour, and had been caught.
We would collect the resin in the summer months – resin that was used in the manufacture of explosives. The boys would prepare the barks, removing sections on three levels of the tree: a lower section you had to bend down to, a middle section that you could reach in a standing position, and an upper section that you needed a ladder to reach. I was responsible for collecting the resin in two pails that hung from a stick that I carried on my shoulders. I would empty the pails into barrels that were kept by the road; sometimes a kilometer away. To make matters worse, there were no paths through the forest – you had to make your own path, and there were snakes everywhere, as well as huge mosquitos and hordes of black flies!
With my brothers’ help, I was able to meet the daily norms and thus be allowed to purchase an extra ration of bread, which helped us a great deal.
In the winter months we would gather clay and make the pots in which to gather the resin in the summer. We would don skis (which were actually just planks of wood with a slight curve at the front and just one strap to tie your foot to) and we would travel quite a distance through the forest to find the clay.
One of the families in our barrack was named Sikora – he had been the First Violinist of the Rzeszow Philharmonic Orchestra. His four children, his wife and his mother had been deported with him. He was the only one who worked but, as he had had no previous exposure to physical labour, he did not produce the norm. Everyone tried to help them as much as possible, but it did no good in the end; all seven of them died.
'AMNESTY' and EVACUATION
When ‘amnesty’ was declared, a constable came to announce to us that we were now free and could go where we pleased. We were overjoyed to hear this. Marian collected what money we all had, and travelled to Novosibirsk with his friend. There, they arranged for a cattle car to transport us.
We left the camp and travelled to Bolshai Reczka. The younger people walked, while the older ones sat on wagons that were used to transport tree trunks. We boarded the cattle car that Marian had arranged for us, but we had no idea where we were going. The journey was particularly difficult, because we had to fend for ourselves where food was concerned. When the train stopped somewhere, we all did what we could; begging for, or stealing, food.
We reached a port on the Amu Daria River and were loaded onto barges that travelled down to the Aral Sea. We were instructed to pick cotton at a local kolkhoz. We spent two weeks there, but we did not manage to pick much cotton as it was impossible to do such work without gloves. We lived in a clay hut with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, so we were wet whenever it rained. We slept on straw on the ground. From time to time, we were given something to eat.
We were then sent to Kermine, where we also lived in a hut on the outskirts of the city. We all came down with dysentery. My two brothers were even more ill than the rest of us, so my mother and I took them to a Russian hospital and left them in the care of the Russian couple there. Somehow, over the course of about 10 days, they managed to cure them.
We learned that the Polish Army was gathering in Kermine, near the railway station. My father and two brothers went there, while my mother and I stayed behind in the hut, waiting to hear from them. After a few weeks, we packed up our meager belongings and we went to the city. My friend Zosia came with us. There were masses of soldiers at the railway station. We went to the Social Assistance office to try to track down my father and brothers. They told us that there was nothing they could do for us, as we had no documents, and father was not an officer.
Zosia’s sister was living with her boyfriend at a Russian lady’s house, so Zosia arranged for us to stay there as well. There was no room in the house, but the lady let us use the chicken coop. We cleaned it up, got some lime and spread it on the walls, and we plugged up all the holes. It turned out that chickens have fleas, and the fleas did not give us any peace, so there was no way we could sleep in there.
We were told that it would be better if we stayed at the station, even if it did mean sleeping out in the open. This is where the trains were coming through and we would have a chance to board one and get to Krasnowodsk. We tried to find Father, and my brothers, but did not succeed. We later learned that the young cadets had been among the first to be sent to Krasnowodsk, and then Persia.
We spent 3 days at the station, then a train with Polish civilians arrived. We had met Tadek Wilk who was from our settlement in Poland. He was on guard duty at the station. He assured us that he would do everything in his power to get me, my mother and my girlfriend onto that train. He got two friends to help him, and they pushed us onto the train through the windows! When the director of the train discovered us, he told us that he could not take us under his wing, because we were not registered. When the train reached the border, he made us get off.
We were all in tears, unsure of what was to come next. A young Russian soldier asked what we were doing there, so we told him that we had been thrown off the train because we were not registered with the Polish Army. He said that this was a border zone and we would surely be arrested if we were discovered to be without papers. But then he added that he would be off duty in a few hours and would come back and help us. He did return, brought us some food, and then hid us in a little room until he could get us on a train. We boarded a train filled with Polish lancers, and shared a compartment with some young lancers who entertained us with guitar playing and singing over the 3 days it took to reach Krasnowodsk.
There, the lancers hid us from the control officer, who was checking everyone’s papers. When it came time to board the ships and barges, we were not permitted to board, since we were not registered. In the end, they took pity on these three tear-stained women, and let us board the barge. We were placed next to the latrine, but we were so tired that we slept through it all, and reached Pahlavi the next day.
LIFE in the MIDDLE EAST
In Pahlavi, they took away all our old clothing, gave us razors and some soap, and we had to pass naked in front of a number of British soldiers. This was horribly humiliating, but it had to be done.
We spent a few days in Pahlavi, and then were transported in Dodge Lorries to Teheran, where we heard that they were looking for volunteers for the Polish Army. On May 18th, Mother and I joined the Polish Army. We were in Teheran for a while, and then I volunteered to go back to Pahlavi, because I kept hoping that I would find Father. We had learned that he had stayed behind because he had come down with typhoid fever, so I hoped to find him among the new arrivals. I ended up being a runner for the hospital there. As there were no telephones, we would run to the depot with the requisition forms so that they could deliver the needed supplies to the hospital.
In the evenings, we would help out by washing the sick people that were arriving in the second evacuation. This is how I found my father. I went to wash a patient and found that it was my father in the bathtub!
After a short time in this job, we were all sent to Rehevot Palestine, where I took a typing course. Once I completed the course, I was assigned to a group who were typing up the pages of books that were used in the Cadet Schools to teach all the young boys. The ladies I was living with put my name in to the list of those who wanted to continue their education. I was not certain that I really wanted to do this, as I was already 18 years old and enjoying the responsibilities of an adult, but I was called up and sent to school. I passed the exam to go into the second year of high school, and completed 3 years of high school over the next 18 months.
I volunteered to work in the hospital. There were a lot of wounded soldiers there, from the Battle of Tobruk, and they needed a lot of help. I took an accelerated 6-month nursing course: we would work at the hospital in the mornings, and attend formal classes in the afternoons. I became a nurse, and worked there for the next 5 years. I liked the work, the patients liked me. I was also promoted to Captain, so I was perfectly happy with my situation.
In 1943, I had learned that someone was looking for me through the Red Cross. This turned out to be Marian, who had gone to England in 1942 and joined the Polish Air Force. All this time, I had not known where he was. From 1943 to 1947, we exchanged frequent letters; I had a huge bag of his letters that I kept. In the end, I had to throw them all out because this would have been excess baggage, and was not permitted.
ENGLAND then CANADA
I arrived in England in 1947 – I was part of the last group that left Palestine with the hospital. Marian and I were married in 1948. First we had a civil ceremony, as was required by English law. Then we had a church wedding, in a Catholic church. When the military chaplain heard that we had been married, he said that he should have performed the ceremony, so we had a third wedding – a military one this time! It stands to reason that we should be married for so many years, having been married 3 times in a row!
A month after our 3rd wedding, we were on our way to Canada. Marian had received an invitation to come to Canada from an uncle who lived in Manitoba, and my father’s sister in Detroit had sent us an invitation to go to the USA. I’m very happy that we chose Canada. Canada is much a more welcoming country, and a much better place to live, than the USA.
At first we lived with Marian’s uncle, who had a 100 acre farm some distance from Winnipeg, but things did not work out for us there, so we moved to Winnipeg. We met a couple named Fijal, who were not related to us in any way, but were very welcoming and treated us like family. He helped Marian find work as a secretary for the Canadian National Railway, and I got a job sewing skirts in a factory that belonged to a Pole. Later, I worked for an insurance company, and in a number of other industries.
Our son Rysiek was born in Winnipeg, and we bought our first little house there. A year later, the company moved us to Toronto, where Marian worked as secretary in the Telecommunications department, and where our daughter was born. Six years later, we purchased a restaurant. It was very hard work - from 6 a.m. to midnight, every day - but the business proved to be a profitable one.
My mother came to stay with us, and minded the children while we worked long hours at the restaurant. In 1960, Mother visited Poland and returned from that trip feeling unwell. She died six months later; she was only 56 years old. After she died, the children had to wake up to an alarm clock on their own. They would come to the restaurant to have their breakfast, and would return there after school to have their supper.
Marian ended up developing ulcers, and the doctor suggested that he should sell the business and get as far away from it as possible. So we sold the restaurant, packed up our two kids, a few suitcases, and our new car, and took a ship to Europe. Over the next four and a half months, we explored nine countries. Such a trip in today’s money would cost a million dollars! The trip did Marian a world of good, and cured his ulcers. On our return, we purchased a hotel in London, Ontario, along with a partner. The partnership did not work out well, so we sold this business 4 years later, and purchased a 53-uit apartment block. This proved to be an excellent investment.
I credit my success in life to the way I was raised. Being raised on a farm, I had responsibilities by the time I was 10 years old; I had to help with everything. I had to bring the food my mother prepared to the workers in the field. I had to help feed the cattle, the chickens, the rabbits, etc. I knew how to work, and I was not afraid of hard labour. I was half my current size when I was in Siberia, but I was healthy and I was strong. I don’t know how I found the strength to carry those two heavy pails full of resin, over a distance of a kilometer of more! The time I spent in Siberia prepared me for a lifetime of hard work.
We have a lovely family: our son and daughter have given us 7 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren. We have always been grateful to Canada for all the opportunities that it afforded us. But we were also good for Canada: we were always very responsible and hard-working; we paid our taxes, and gave back to the community.
My husband Marian died in Warsaw, in July 2012, while attending the World Reunion of Polish Pilots. He suffered a heart attack, was taken to hospital, but passed away two weeks later. We spent 72 unforgettable years together, from the time of our deportation to the time of his passing. Few people have been as blessed as we have been, to have shared so many of the hardships, and the joys, of our lives together.