The Experiences of the Gac Family during World War II
The farm of Kazimir Gac and his son Jan lay at the crossroads of Husiatyn, Sidorów Suchodół, Trojanówka, and Bednarówka.
My Grandfather, Grandmother and my father Jan came there to an empty field in the year of 1922. They bought a lot of around 40 morgs (a morg = 5600 square meters) of field and forest from Mr. Pawel Korytka.
In May of 1924, Father married Honorata Huzar from Sidorów. She was a young hard working girl, full of the joy of life, who put a great deal of effort into the development of our farm. Over the next 17 years, a house was built, along with barns, stables, and a silo. The fields provided a bountiful harvest and the orchard thrived beautifully.
The horses, cattle, swine and poultry all increased in quality and quantity. In the meantime, the children came along: Edward, born April 22, 1925, Zuzanna, born November 24, 1926, Józefa, born March 8, 1930, and Helena, born May 1, 1932.
We went to school in Suchodół for two years, where we were taught by Mr. Kazimir Sozanski. After that, we went to school in Husiatyn, 4 km from our farm. We walked to school, though sometimes we got a ride in the winter. After the sixth grade, my brother Edward passed the entrance examination for high school, and went to study and board at High School #608 in Tarnopol
Then came September 1939, and the invasion of the Bolsheviks. On the early morning of September 17, the Russians shot at our buildings and the explosion of a shell made a big hole in our fields. The whole family went to our temporary shelter and Father went to stand beside some sheaves of straw to watch what happened. After some time, he saw the Bolsheviks come out of the wood. It was a terrible shock for him. I do not remember how the Bolsheviks behaved towards us, but it was a terrible feeling to see tanks and old trucks full of soldiers driving down the road.
The occupation had begun, but Grandfather maintained that it would not last long. In any case, the autumn chores had to be done! After a few days, Ivan Kukurudza (the head the “sielrada” - the Communist governing council for the area) informed us that we must give up our horses and cows. I remember that the horses returned very quickly and stood and neighed at the gate, so that we had to take them into the stable.
I do not remember when the cows returned, but the barns were full at the time of our removal from the farm.
I do not have pleasant memories of this period. Someone from the “Sielrada” was constantly coming to the farm, taking this and that from among our farm implements and tools, and “teaching” my father how to feed the horses and cows, and how to run the farm! In December, it became evident that they wanted to resettle us and the whole colony! To drive us out! The majority of the residents of Trojanówka and Bednarówka were of a different opinion. On their own, they called a meeting of the residents and the so-called “masses” decided that the “Sielrada” was wrong. So we stayed, and that was our St. Nicholas Day in 1939! Christmas Eve and Christmas were equally sad occasions ... and the last Christmas holiday we were ever to spend in our HOME. Then came a very frigid February 1940.
Expulsion and Deportation to the U.S.S.R.
Around three o’clock on the morning of February 10, 1940, we were awakened by banging on the door. On opening the door, three people entered: Mr. Lubinski (our teacher from Suchodół), an NKVD officer, and a soldier in a grey great coat with a star on his hat. They conducted a search and ordered us to pack. The one in the grey great coat turned out to be the most decent toward us. He advised mother to milk the cows, feed the children and pack warm clothing. Lubinski, on the other hand, advised that we leave everything because we would get everything we needed where we were going. Dawn was breaking as all the neighbours from the surrounding area were gathered in our yard. Our family (there were eight of us) was permitted to use one sleigh. I remember that as the sleigh started to move, the horses neighed, the cows lowed, and the dogs howled, even the ones a kilometer away in Suchodół
A long freight train stood on the wide Russian rails in the station in Husiatyn. In the cattle cars there were several levels of wooden bunks along both sides (bare boards) a hole in the floor to serve as a latrine, and a steel stove in the middle of the car. There were 40 of us in the car. The next day, the residents of Husiatyn and the surrounding villages brought what they could to give to the people on the train. A Ukrainian from Szydłowce even brought us 100 Roubles. He and his sister worked for us every year at harvest time, for which we paid them with an agreed upon share of the harvest.
The train set out to the accompaniment of weeping and the strains of the hymn “Serdeczna Matko”.
Kulicze, Ałtaisky Krai
After three weeks, the trains brought us to Kulicze in the Altaisky Krai region. The remaining cars on the train went to Zapadne and Oziero. We were dirty, not having washed or bathed in three weeks, so the residents of Kulicze knew from our appearance that we were not “trouble makers” but, like themselves, victims of forced resettlement. The Russians quartered us in some building, and gave the children milk and the adults “kipiatok” (boiling water). And so began our stay in Kulicze.
I remember that a woman named Tatiana Shivova took charge of us. Her father had been a church deacon, so her family was deported some time after the Russian revolution. The next day, we were driven by sleigh through deep snow to barracks deep in the forest, about 4 km away from Kulicze. The forest was lush and full of beautiful trees and lakes. The barracks were heated and the shed was full o fire wood. There were wooden bunks on both sides of the long barrack and two iron stoves for cooking and heat.
The following people from Czabarówka lived in our barrack:
Mr. Jan Godzisz with his wife and daughter Danusia and his old mother;
Mr. Józef Godzisz with his wife and two daughters Władzią and Krysią;
Mr. Marceli Rasławski the father-in-law of Józef;
Mr. Władysław Godzisz without his family;
Mr. Mazur with his wife;
Adolf (Dolek) Gustyn with his wife Józefa (Ziunia);
Two Rajzer families – I do not remember their names.
From the colony belonging to Suchodół there were:
Mr. Silarski with his wife and two sons Jan and Tadeusz;
Mr. Słysz with his wife, children and sister;
Mr. Kozimor with his wife and children;
Mr. Pieszczoch with his wife and children;
Mr. Lipinski with his wife and her two adult daughters and her two sons Władysław and Stanisław Bochniak.
There were also some of our close neighbours from home living in the barrack:
Feliks Oleśków and his wife and three sons, Tadeusz, Jan and Wiktor and their daughter Maria;
Mr. Gackowski and his daughter;
Mr. Michnowski with his wife and two sons;
Mr. Śliz with his wife and sons Tadeusz and Władysław and their daughter Helena lived in a smaller neighbouring barrack.
There were more families from our area, but I do not remember the details about them.
After one week, the adults were ordered to present themselves in Kulicze where everyone was assigned their duties. The majority worked in the saw mill, while others loaded the wagons (Grushchiki). Still others cut down trees in the forest. This was very dangerous work, especially in the winter when the trees were covered with snow two meters deep. These jobs were well paid. Father worked in the saw mill removing boards and railway ties from the saw. Mother worked outside, cutting huge blocks of wood into the required lengths. Her partner was Mrs. Godzisz from Czabarówka. This was very difficult work for women. In the winter there was severe cold, and in the summer sweltering heat which caused the sap to stick to the saw, making it difficult to manoeuvre.
The first of May was a great holiday, and the next two days people rested after the big drunk. I am writing here about the locals because we, the “Spiecpieresielency” were not allowed to leave the barracks in the first year. (Note: The exiled Poles from the Eastern Borderlands were classed according to type. Spiecpieresielency were made up of civil servants, police, Polish settlers and their families who were deemed enemies of the U.S.S.R.) Before such a holiday as May First, or the commemoration of the October Revolution, and sometime for no particular occasion (very infrequently), the little store in Kulicze would get smoked or dried fish, candies, and sometimes sugar, salt and better quality bread. Those who worked could buy one kilogram of bread, those who did not work could buy 40 decagrams. The rations were reduced after the Germans invaded the U.S.S.R. to 40 dekagrams for those who worked and those who did not work got nothing.
The small store stocked a number of staples including vodka, cologne, shag (a type of tobacco), salt and bread. Once, in the middle of the winter, they supplied the store with a few pairs of warm felt boots, but only a chosen few could buy them.
The spring started in the middle of May. After that, came the very hot summer which lasted until September. In the spring, one could search out a meadow in the forest and plant potatoes in the virgin earth which yielded a bountiful harvest. We exiles lived on potatoes because what supplies we had brought with us from Poland were quickly depleted, especially if the family was a large one.
Many families received packages from their relatives in Poland. So it was that from time to time one of the ladies in our barrack fried some sort of pancakes from such supplies. When she did this, we would run into the forest because we could not bear the wonderful aroma. There were a number of children in our barrack. Being only fourteen, I was not assigned work, so I sang hymns and scouting songs with the children. Once, I taught them a story entitled “In the poppy flower bed” and surprised the adults with a performance of the story. It was only a story, but it served to lift everyone’s spirits. At the end, there was not a dry eye in the house as we all sang “Boże Coś Polskę”. Afterwards, the lady with the pancakes treated the performers with some of her goodies.
In the middle of the summer we had a terrible forest fire. What a sight! You put out the fire in front of you, and the flames sprang up again behind you. The flames raced to the tree tops which were covered with sap, and then in the direction of our barracks! The villagers from Kulicze came to help and give advice and finally, after three days, the fire was extinguished.
The director of our settlement, whose name was Ilnicki, was a good administrator and an understanding person. Because of this, the conditions of the residents of Kulicze were reasonably good, compared with those in other settlements. Each Russian family owned a cow or sheep and a few chickens, for which they did not have to pay taxes to the government, as was required in other settlements.
The commanding NKVD officer of our settlement was a rather unremarkable individual. He lived with his wife, and I cannot remember him ever maltreating us. He carried out his duties as he saw fit, issuing passes to those who wished to visit relatives in Zapadne ten km away. Sometimes he summoned someone for interrogation. After some time, he was recalled by his superiors, and NKVD Captain Ivanov was installed in his place. I do not know what he did in the NKVD. He was a cultured man, with a European manner, who treated everyone humanely. I remember that he once saved my mother’s hands from frostbite. He noticed by chance that her hands were completely white with the cold, and by rubbing them with snow. He managed to warm them and bring back the circulation. I do not remember exactly how the treatment was carried out, but the local inhabitants knew what to do in such situations.
Labour in the places of exile in the U.S.S.R. was hard. The workers worked 12 hours a day. Our family was a arge one, so my brother Edward, at the age of 16, presented himself for work. He went to work with my father collecting lumber and railway ties from the saw. Edward was well liked, and the Russian who knew and controlled the thicknesses of the boards and ties taught him his job, while Edward, during his lunch breaks, fixed the old broken belts and sharpened and oiled the saw. Edward’s attentiveness to learning all the processes paid off when, after a short time, his Russian boss needed to be replaced.
The war between the Russians and Germans broke out, and the former allies became enemies. The majority of Russians were called to military service, and the positions they vacated had to be filled by the “Spiecpieresielency”. The leave-taking of the Russians was always soaked with vodka and the tears of their wives, mothers and children. Edward was put in his former boss’s position because he knew and carried the job out well. Nevertheless, every time an old belt broke, he was called to account and satisfy his Russian superiors that the belt was not sabotaged.
And then, a miracle! It was September 1941, and we were free! An agreement was signed by Poland and the U.S.S.R. in July 1941 by which the U.S.S.R. gave 'amnesty' to deported Polish citizens and whereby an army under the control of the Polish Government-in-exile in London would be raised on Russian soil. We could now travel to the southern republics, where the Polish army was forming. We chose to travel to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. All the Polish families bought transport in a couple of freight cars. We packed up whatever belongings we had left, along with some dried bread, and bidding farewell to the inhabitants of Kulicze, we boarded the train and left. The journey was very eventful and long. We ran out of dried bread, and could not get bread anywhere. When the train stopped, it would be left on side rails, and one never knew when the train would start again. We only stopped once in one city. That was in Alma Ata which was reminiscent of a European city. The people were well-dressed, the shops were full, and most important of all, one could buy as much bread as once wanted. We were very fortunate that no one from our transport got lost. Among other transports, members of families were very frequently separated when someone went looking for food, and the train would start on its journey and leave them behind. The areas we passed on our journey were poor, neglected and sad.
We never did arrive in Samarkand. The train was sent in another direction and we were ordered to work for a time on this or that kolkhoz (collective farm). We picked cotton and carrots used for fodder (better than cotton because we could eat the carrots). The conditions were less than tolerable. I remember the name of one kolkhoz, “Molotov Vtoroy” where there was terrible hunger. The director was an ex-convict, a Korean who was very cruel.
Our Grandpa Gac was very enterprising. He regularly circulated around the area and once happened on a sovkhoz (a farm cooperative run differently and more effectively than a kolkhoz). Grandpa liked what he saw and approached the Russian director to present his proposition: There were four working members in the family, the kolkhoz where they were was very badly run, and those four workers would be of value to this sovkhoz. The director of the sovkhoz needed workers and advised Grandpa that he would take us if we could get there by our own devices
It was much better for us at the sovkhoz, though the work was hard. My father was familiar with farm implements and so got work repairing them. My brother Edward was sent to take a course in operating tractors. Mother, eight Russian women and I tended pigs. It was much better work than picking cotton in the fields during the terrible heat. I will not describe how we carried slop for the pigs in big pails on yokes, or the cleaning of the cages and removal of the pig manure by pails on yokes. There were around 150 pigs and the work was very hard, but w were treated better here than at the kolkhoz. We made friends among the Russians, and we invited them, and they invited us.
Then one day, a POLISH SOLDIER wearing a uniform with a crowned eagle on his cap, rode into the sovkhoz. What joy! It turned out that we were not far from Yangi-Yul, where General W. Anders and the headquarters of the Polish Army in the U.S.S.R. were located. Father and my brother Edward immediately went to enlist in the army, but were sent to Guzar. At last, after such a long time, the whole family had the opportunity to attend holy mass. There was the sacrament of Penance, the Holy Eucharist, all accompanied by tears of joy. We were told that there would be transports out of the U.S.S.R. We were advised to give Józefa (11 years old) and Helena (9 years old) to the Polish orphanage, to guarantee them places in the first transport out of the U.S.S.R. The rest of the family (that is Mother, Grandma and Grandpa and I) were advised to wait in Tashkent for further information.
Departure from the U.S.S.R.
In this way we bid farewell to our many friends and took up residence in the railway station in Tashkent, along with hundreds of others like us. We were constantly haunted by hunger and a plague of fleas. It was a wonder that no one from our family got Typhus because in the squalor there were also lice. Typhoid fever and dysentery decimated the emaciated and exhausted former inmates of the Siberian prison and labour camps.They died like flies, though they were now free. My brother Edward survived dysentery in Guzar only because a sergeant of the Probużny family looked after him. My father was not accepted into the army because he was too emaciated. He therefore had to return to his family, traveling on the bumpers between railway cars. He found us in Tashkent. I do not remember the date of our departure from Krasnovodsk or the conditions of the journey. I remember the crowding on the overloaded ship – a tanker full of sick children, soldiers and civilians which transported us to Pahlavi in Persia (now Bandar-e Anzali).
We disembarked the tanker dirty and sick, but after disinfection and bathing here in Persia we felt better. We then received clean blankets and what was left of our clothes (disinfected). Later, we received clean clothes from the American Red Cross. My father volunteered for military service once again and this time was accepted. He was 44 years old. Our next place of residence was in one of a number of refugee camps near Teheran. Here, there were primary schools, high schools, the scouting movement, chapels and religious services.
In the mean time, my brother surprised us with a visit on his vacation, though after two weeks he had to return to his division in Iraq, somewhere near Kirkuk. Our family and many others then prepared for the journey to Ahvaz – one of the hottest places in the world.
We lived in Ahvaz for several months, after which we traveled by train to the port of Khorramshar where a miraculous surprise awaited us. The Polish ship BATORY with her white and red flag stood in the harbour waiting for us. What indescribable joy! It was December 2, 1943.
We sailed as in a dream for seven days to the port of Karachi in India. Our ship was one of many ships which formed a convoy, because German U-boats roamed the waters which we travelled. During our voyage, the sailors put on a celebration for St. Nicholas day for us, and our young hearts (and the hearts of the not so young as well) came to love them all, for how could it be otherwise? After seven days, we bid farewell to this piece of “Our Poland” and we went to live in tents at the Country Club camp, 18 km from Karachi. This was a transit camp from which Polish refugees were directed to settlements in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Rhodesia, Tanganyika, and India.
On November 1, 1944, New Zealand accepted 735 Polish children saved from the hell of Russia. Most of these where orphans accompanied by 105 teachers and chaperones. The children were from the ages of four to seventeen years. However, that is another story.
We stayed in the Country Club camp until its closure in October 1945.
The train journey to Valivade-Kolhapur through the jungle was interesting and long. The jungle was full of tropical trees and liana vines, as well as monkeys that tried to attack the train at each station. During the magical evenings and nights, we were enchanted by thousands of fire flies flitting among the trees.
In Valivade, we were met by some ladies we knew, who were familiar with the day-to-day routine in the camp, and who gave us pointers about how to get along without a common kitchen and dining facility. Mummy had to learn how to light the coal in the small round stove in order to cook meals and how to shop.
We lived in long barracks divided by mats into twelve 2-room quarters. Everyone had to have a mosquito net hung over their beds, because after the monsoon rains the mosquitoes attacked in swarms, and the females carried malaria. This was just the latest disease we encountered during our odyssey. No one in our family got typhoid fever, but we all suffered from malaria frequently. The “floor” in our homes had to be smeared regularly with cows manure. This was done with great dexterity by local women from the nearby villages. This was a form of self-defence against cockroaches, which nevertheless continued to be a problem.
Schools, both elementary and high schools, and the scouting movement blossomed! Eighty percent of the teachers in the high schools were accredited teachers. While the teachers were very committed, there was always a shortage of school books and teaching aids. The leadership of the Scouts and Guides were devoted to the youth, and, in my opinion, they raised us to be good citizens and decent people.
There was also a small hospital with very good medical care. The small church was always filled with younger and the older residents engrossed in prayer. Most of the families had a father, brother, son, or husband in the Polish 2nd Corps of General Anders, and we were always waiting for letters from them from Iraq, Palestine and then Italy.
Battle at Monte Cassino
At age 19, my brother Edward was a sapper and, as one of the first, experienced a terrible attack in which the monastery was stormed by one thousand cannon all at once. Later while reminiscing about the battle, he said that if there is a hell, then he had lived through it already. He brought out of that battle a piece of shrapnel in one lung and the Cross of Valour medal. Father, who had been in the army workshops, thanked God that his son was still alive when he found Edward in the hospital.
What great disillusionment! The great battles at Monte Cassino, Loretto and Bologna gave us nothing! The soldiers of other countries returned home. The soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps could not go home because there were no homes for them to return to. In November 1947, we sailed from India to a camp in England. The former American military camp which we occupied was made up of half-drum shaped metal barracks, each of which had a small stove for which there was no fuel. All the necessities of life and provisions were acquired by coupons (one egg a week). And then came the spring, thank heaven.
Mummy, like other mothers, began raising chickens and rabbits. The forests were full of “Prawdziwki” (Porcini mushrooms) which the English did not eat. Milk was brought in by nearby farmers.
In the summer, the women were transported to farms to harvest hops, fruit and berries, and to do other similar farm work. After demobilization, father got work in the nearby town of Hereford. My brother Edward worked in a steel plant in Birmingham.
Józefa, my middle sister, got married and also moved to Birmingham. Helena, my younger sister, went away to school where she earned both a Polish and English matriculation. I moved away to perfect my mastery of spoken English. I had already acquired a good vocabulary and an understanding of English grammar in India.
Our Grandpa Kazimir Gac passed away in March 1949, and Grandma followed him in September of that same year. They were buried in England, in a small village near Hereford.
After their departure from the U.S.S.R., our Uncle and Aunt Jan and Karolina Nakoneczny from Suchodół and their son Czesław were sent to a settlement in Uganda, where they lived for a few years until the end of the war. They then moved to Canada. Their elder son Kornel was a pilot who flew 25 missions during the war. After demobilization, he traveled to Canada to be reunited with his family. After a time, he invited my brother and me to come to Canada, and so we arrived in Halifax, N.S. Canada in November 1950. Then, we traveled to Toronto by train.
We lived with my uncle and aunt for two years until the arrival of my parents and my sister Helena. Getting jobs and housing was very difficult, but in the end we managed to get both, and with our common savings, we bought a house. My sister Józefa with her husband and little son came to Canada two years later.
We slowly began to accustom ourselves to our new conditions. In Toronto there was a Polish church, and there were Polish shops, and Polish newspapers. The Polish community, made up mainly of Poles who immigrated to Canada before WWII, kept together and preserved and kept Polish traditions. Most of them spoke in country dialects, but the children all had to speak Polish. There were Polish Saturday morning schools, and the youth were bilingual. There were all kinds of organizations, amateur theatre groups, and dance groups where the children learned Polish folk dances.
After a while, our situation began to improve. The Polish organizations organized balls and dances from time to time. Carnival time was one joyous dance. I met my husband Edward Wacyk when I was 34 years old, and I was happy that he came from the same area of Poland that I did.
Edward was born not far from Zaleszczyki, and spent his summer vacations in Niżborg Szlachecki (his mother ,of the Dobrucki family, came from there). His father Józef Wacyk was an agent of the secret police, so the family lived in Tarnopol and Kołomyja, depending on where he was working at the time.
After September 1, 1939, Edward’s father traveled through Rumania, Hungary and France to Scotland. Edward, his sister Danuta and his mother were deported to Kazakstan, U.S.S.R. on April 13, 1940. In 1941, Edward enlisted in the Polish Army of General Anders, and his mother and sister returned to Poland in 1946. The family was reunited in England in 1947 (his mother and sisters arrived in England after many adventures). A year later, the Wacyk family immigrated to Canada.
Both Edward and I attended all the various Polish community events, dances and picnics, and it was in this way, by a stroke of mutual good fortune that we met and got to know each other. We married in November 1960 and then started a family. Mark and Ewa are our greatest achievement. They attended Catholic schools, which we paid for. Then a lot of money went into their University studies, which yielded good results. They each have two university degrees. We encouraged them to travel, so they visited Europe (including Poland), Australia, New Zealand and the United States. They have seen too little of Canada, but this always seems to be put off until tomorrow… Our children have their own families now, and they let grandma and grandpa baby-sit and enjoy the grandchildren.
In our spare time, we visit our friends and, thanks to the internet, I now correspond with Stasia Ziólkowska, my girlfriend from primary school in Husiatyn and Edward Popiel, my neighbour from Suchodół.
Thanks to Edward Popiel, I received several issues of “Wieś Kresowa” (the Eastern Borderlands Village), and it is for this reason that I am writing about the odyssey of my family. There are many things I do not remember and I have lost contact with many people. I am 78 years old. I know that Mrs. Śliz with her son and her daughter Helena were sent to a settlement in Uganda (Africa) and I heard that Helena died on the way (1943). I was in contact with Tadeusz Oleśków who settled in England. Also, we had a visit from Kazimir Myślicki, who lived in the U.S.A., sometime during the 1970s.
Letter addressed to Julian Ziobrowski, the editor of “Wieś Kresowa”:
Dear Sir! I admire you and wish you much strength and health. I thank you very much for all that I have learned from “Wieś Kresowa – Czabarówka I Sąsiedzi ". I remember Mr. Marceli Rasławski who died in Kulicze in Altaisky Krai. If the majority of the residents of Czabarówka have a similar attitude to his, it is no wonder that you have prevailed and maintained contact with each for so long! Would that all Poles were like you!
God bless you for your efforts.
With warm greetings
Zuzanna Wacyk (Gac), February 2005
P.S. I will not comment on your terrible experiences and suffering as a result of the inhuman operations of the followers of Stepan Bandera, UNO and UIA26. My health will not allow it!!
(Note: Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian National Organization and its military arm the Ukrainian Insurrectionist Army conducted genocidal ethnic cleansing operations of exceptional barbarity against the Poles and other minorities in the Polish Eastern Borderlands.)
In Toronto we lost Uncle Jan and Aunt Karolina Nakoneczny. Their son Kornel also died in 1994. My parents Jan and Honorata Gac have also passed on. My mother died in 1990, and my father in 1992. My brother Edward passed away in July 1999.
Courtesy of Barbara Charuba
Jozef Wacyk pre-war Police ID
Helena, Edward and Jan Gac at Gacówka - 1938
Location of Gajowka