JERZY (GEORGE) STECIUK
Deported to Siberia and spent 5 years in East Africa
I was born in Poland in Gruszow, Sokal (near modern-day L’viv) on March 10th, 1937. I was born at home and a midwife was present, which was a common occurrence. There was no doctor in the village – they were mostly in bigger cities or towns. Most of the time people stayed at home and used herbs as a cure, or went to a pharmacy for advice. If it was more serious, they would then see a doctor and then possibly go to a hospital. I talked to my cousin about the herbs – she is more familiar with that – and I forgot to write some of those down. But the old country people were pretty good at knowing which to use. Some of those herbs grow here.
Both my parents were also born in Poland, in a town called Kamyk in Krakow province. My father was Jozef Steciuk, and my mother was Agnieszka (nee Starmach). My mother was a homemaker and father worked as a mechanic, and did some watch repairs for people. I was the oldest child, and had a younger sister.
Our small village had a Roman Catholic Church, although I do not recall the name. Sundays were very important days in Poland – people did not work. Mostly they visited, read, or had people visit them.
In Poland, people mostly died at home – at least in our small village. The body was prepared by the family or a neighbour, and a local carpenter made the coffin. The funeral was always held at the church.
I was baptised in Poland. I then had my First Communion and Confirmation in Africa
Christmas in Poland was a very happy occasion. There was midnight mass and lots of singing of carols. Everyone would cut down their own tree and made their own decorations. The Christmas meal had twelve meatless dishes and it was a big occasion. There were real candles on the trees, but I was too young to remember that.
Easter was also a very special time. During Lent, people fasted for 40 days and gave things up – whatever was particularly important to them. We also did not eat meat on Fridays. People went to confession – even those who did not regularly go to church, went to confession at least once a year. Holy week was a special occasion. On the Wednesday we would do the stations of the cross, then from Friday to Sunday it was very important that guards were stationed at the altar – they stood nearly motionless. On the Saturday, people took baskets of food to the church to be blessed, and there was lots of baking and excitement in preparation for Easter Sunday. On Sunday, everyone attended the early morning resurrection service. It was common for people to decorate Easter eggs, and then share them at Easter breakfast.
World War II affected our family in that we were forcibly taken from our home by the Russians and sent to Siberia on 10 February 1940. They gave us 20 minutes to pack our things and took us away. Many Poles who lived close to the Russian border were taken away. We were put into box cars like cattle, and it took about 3 weeks to reach our destination. We received almost no food during this time. I remember what my parents used to tell me about the trip – because I was so young, they would give me a bucket to ask the engineer for some water. If an older person was to ask, they would not get any, but there was a chance that a small child would be successful. That is the only food that I remember. I don’t recall if there was anything else.
We were taken to a work camp in Siberia, near a small village called Chara, where we were later moved. We stayed in Russia for nearly two years. My parents had to work, collecting sap from the trees, and do other work that the Russians made them do. They had to work very long days in order to receive a handful of grain for all of us to survive on. Since my father spoke both Ukrainian and Russian well, he was reassigned to the stores, where he was able to steal a small piece of dry bread from time to time. It was very dangerous, and he could have been shot for doing this.
The living conditions were quite primitive; there were no beds, so we slept on hay on the cold ground. When my parents were at work, there was no one to take care of me and my sister. At first, my grandmother was there to look after us, but she was old and sick and she died there. My sister died of malnutrition in Siberia, and I was lucky to have survived.
In June 1941 Germany suddenly attacked their Russian army and the situation changed for us as a result. We were able to leave Siberia because of an agreement between the Polish and Russian governments to form a Polish army to fight Germany. My father was young enough to join the army. He and the other men, as well as the teenage boys, all joined the army. The women and children travelled with them, to reach the collection points in the southern part of Russia. We travelled through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and finally reached the port of Krasnoyarsk on the Caspian Sea. We crossed the Caspian Sea on overcrowded barges and ships, and ended up at the port of Pahlavi in Persia (Iran). From there we went on to a Polish settlement in Masindi, Kenya, East Africa.
While traveling through Iran, I contracted malaria and ended up in a hospital in Teheran. My mother and my aunt were able to stay with me and brought me through my illness. Many women and children were in field hospitals in Iran, sick with malaria. When I was released from the hospital, we traveled through Iran and Iraq, and made our way to Masindi.
Masindi was near the equator, and surrounded by jungle, where we played. We lived in rectangular straw huts, and it was not unusual for a snake to slither in and out. Later, in Tengeru, we lived in round mud huts with straw roofs and open doorways. My mother was a seamstress and made all our clothes when we were younger. We had store bought clothes later, though we did not need many clothes in Africa, because it was so warm.
I am not sure how long it took for us to get to Masindi. I asked my cousin (who is older) and she thinks it took about 9 weeks. It was slow going – by train, by truck convoy, and by ship. This time we had food during the trip, provided for us by the Polish and British governments. During this time, the men were trained in various parts of the Middle East, and then fought in the Italian Campaign at places like Monte Cassino. The plan was to have the women and children spend the war years far from any action, and that is how it was in Masindi.
The climate was very hot there, but I was very young and so got acclimatized to it very quickly. Life there was very good for those of us who were young – we went to school, and spent the rest of the time running around and playing. Since the jungle was so close, we would run in and out of it at will.
The people that had been taken from Poland to Siberia included all kinds – including teachers and professors. They ended up in Masindi with us, and taught in the schools there. We spent the last 2 years in Tengeru, Tanganyika and there were teachers there as well.
We had a lot of bananas to eat, and I had a monkey as a pet, so we had a lot of fun with that. We had normal food while we were there, although some things were hard to get. We raised our own chickens, and grew vegetables. We also got some milk from the natives that lived all around us.
When we first got there, the natives were very good and would never take anything of ours. But it took the white man to teach them how to steal, so if we left anything outside it would be stolen. They would even come at night and steal our chickens, and then sell them back to us at the market the next day, so it became a constant battle. So we ended up having to hide things.
I don’t know why we ended up in Masindi, or why we later moved to Tengeru, while my aunt and cousin and some of my friends stayed behind in Masindi. During the 3 years in Masindi, my mother served as a policewoman, and I have a photo of her in her uniform.
Life at this location at that point was good because we were all young and we were able to go to school and then the rest of the day we had nothing to do but, run around.. We were maybe 50 yards away from the jungle so that we were able to run in and out and just be free-wheeling at that point.
We had the women that cane along from Siberia and were able to teach us because, as we sere taken away from Poland, there was no discrimination: there were poor people, there were professors, there were teachers, there were all kinds of people. taken along and these people were with us in Massindi, Kenya. After Massindi, we went to Tanganyika for a couple of years.
We had lots of bananas to eat which was one good thing and, in fact, I had a little monkey for a pet and we had lots of fun with that. We had pretty normal food, some things were hard to get. We grew our own chickens and other things and we were able to buy some milk from the natives that lived around us because we were in a camp and the Africans were right around us. When we first moved there the natives were very good. They would not touch anything of ours. it took the white man to teach the natives how to steal and so, later on, if we left anything outside of the hut it would be stolen. They would come around at night and steal chickens from the coops and the next day rese1l them back to you at the market, so it was a constant battle 1lke that. Initially it was great but after that you had to hide things because they would come and steal from you.
Why we moved to Tanganyika I am not really sure. My mother and I stayed in Massindi, Kenya, for about three years and she was a policewoman. Then, for some reason, we moved to Tangeru, Tanganyika or a couple of years. Why the moved, I an really not sure because the rest of the family stayed behind in Kenya and that is where my cousin and my aunt and a couple of other friends stayed. We were separated at that point.
After we stayed in Tanganyika for two years, the war ended and after the war my father went to England and from that point was able to bring us to be with him in England. We were always able to keep in touch with each other - in fact right from the tine we left Siberia, we were able to find out where in the war he was. Hey fought in Italy in Monte Cassino and was able to write letters to us. It took a long time for the letters to come but we were able to write letters to him to let him know how we were doing and in fact when we were in Teheran, I was very sick and they let him know because I came close to death several times (with malaria).
Those that stayed back in Kenya eventually joined us. In fact they went to another place, other than England, and then somehow we were reconnected back here in Winnipeg. We were lucky in that respect.
We stayed about a year in England and then in 1948 is we left England to cone to Canada. We had a choice when we were in England, to go to Argentina or to come to Canada. We did not know anyone in Argentina but my father knew someone from Poland who had gone to Canada before the war and he was living just outside of Winnipeg, on a farm. That they were able to sponsor us to bring us to Winnipeg
We left England in the winter of 1948 and it took two weeks to reach Canada by ship. There were storms during the crossing and the voyage was scary. We landed at Halifax, then took the train to Winnipeg. There were a lot of military and immigrants on the ship that were also coming to Canada, while others had chosen to go to Argentina.
We did not get any financial help when we came here. The agreement was that we would work on the farm for one year to pay back the cost of the voyage. When we came to Canada in 1948, I was eleven years old – almost twelve - so I went back to school. Because of language problems, I went back to Grade 4, and start all over in order to learn English. I found Canada strange, because of the snow. I had not experienced snow and cold since Siberia. It was winter when we got to the farm, and it was an old country home with one stove on the main floor. We had to fire it up in the morning, so we slept through the cold at night. The farmer’s son had a dance hall, so it was fun to watch the people dance, and my parents helped to clean it up afterwards. In the spring, we had to go out into the fields and pick the stones, before they could plow and sew the seeds. That meant that the first year was pretty hard labour for my parents. I went to a school that was about a mile away from the farm and had grades 1 to 8 all together. Of course, I had to walk a mile there and back every day.
In 1949, we came to Winnipeg and lived in a rooming house on Lilly, near George Avenue. We lived in one big room on the second floor, that served as a bedroom, living room, and kitchen. Just around the corner on George Avenue, my father’s friend from Poland had a small house and offered to sell it to us. We did not have any money, but he offered us a mortgage, so we moved into it just before the 1950 flood. We were flooded out, and the water reached the main floor. We were given time off from school, and we helped to fill sand bags, so that they could sand bag the river.
We were lucky because my father was a mechanic in Poland, so he was able to get a job at a garage – I think it was Dickson Motors. My mother was a seamstress, so she was also able to get a job, at one of the clothing factories.
When we came to Winnipeg, we joined Holy Ghost Church on Selkirk and, as a teenager, I was very active in the church. I was an altar boy, and belonged to a small youth club that got together often. We helped the priest count the offerings and basically had a great time there. Sundays were important days, just as they had been in Poland. We did not work. We generally went to Church, we either visited people or they visited us for dinner, then played cards, and did things like that. At Christmas, we maintained the tradition of the twelve meatless dishes. At Easter I served as one of the guards at the altar, just like I had seen in Poland. It was very important for us to remain almost motionless for hours at a time. We also carried on the tradition of decorating Easter eggs, and blessing the food basket.
I finished grade 12, went to university for 2 years, and then took a 2-year accounting course. I worked at a Chartered Accounting firm during the day, and drove a cab at night. In those days, students were only paid $50.00 a month, so I had to supplement my earnings by driving the cab. In the second year, I got a raise to $75.00, so I still had to drive a cab to supplement my earnings. I discovered that this was not really my kind of work, so I continued driving a cab for another year and a half, then I went into sales, and have been in sales ever since. I worked for a glass and plastics form, and travelled Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. When I married Gertrude in 1966, I gave up Alberta, and later gave up Saskatchewan, and finally travelled just in Manitoba. After nine years with that company, I worked for an industrial chemical firm for another nine years, before switching to real estate. I have been in real estate ever since.
Some friends of mine knew Gertrude (nee Janke) and thought we would be well suited, so they introduced us. I took instruction in the Lutheran faith and converted, so Gertrude and I were married at St. Mark’s Lutheran church on 6 August 1966. We lived on the second floor of a duplex on St. John’s Avenue in the North End. After a year, we bought a house on Columbus Street in Westwood, and have lived here ever since. We had three daughters (Angela, Pamela and Deborah) who all got a better education than I had.
Gertrude and I got involved in St. Mark’s activities – we oversaw the youth group for 2 years, and then I was put on the council. We spent summers at the Luther Village family retreat, we were also on the Young At Heart executive, and have generally been very involved in the life of the parish.