Polish Poetry in Siberian Exile
In the mind of many Poles the word “Siberia” does not refer to a mere geographical area which extends eastward from the Urals across North Asia, and southward from the Arctic Ocean to the steppes of central Asia and Mongolia. It symbolizes the oppression of Poles and other nationalities in Russian-occupied Poland by Tsars and later by commissars. It was under Josef Stalin’s leadership that hundreds of thousands of Poles were arrested and sent to the Siberian concentration camps without any legal process or trial. Siberia is known among the survivors as Gehenna or “inhuman land” where millions of Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans died from hunger, cold, exhaustion, sickness, and excessive labor. The survivors of Siberia are called “Sybiracy” in Polish. Like the Holocaust survivors, they have their organizations and websites.
During the Soviet era, no one in Poland was permitted to speak openly of the slave labor camps in Siberia, and history textbooks remained totally silent about this topic. The survivors began publishing their stories in the 1990s. The Union of the Siberians, an organization established in 1928 but outlawed by the Soviet occupation forces after 1939, was reactivated in 1988. It gave some publicity to the Soviet crimes. In 1993 their periodical, The Siberian, published a selection of poems written in the Siberian camps by Polish deportees.
American readers learned from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago that the NKWD began to establish a network of labor camps in the Soviet Union as early as 1917. In 1930, the GULAG, a new government agency administering these camps, came into being.
The inmate population increased rapidly to 5 million by 1936, while by 1943 the number tripled or even quadrupled, by some estimates. These deportation places were established in such a way that the labor of prisoners benefited the Soviet Union at the expense of the prisoners’ survival. Indeed, these were death camps where people were sent to perish. This aspect of the camps is well expressed by a poem by Beata Obertyńska:
From strong wind that slashes your face,
From fire’s warmth-when at night they order you to leave it,
From marshlike taiga that you sink in up to your knees,
From torn-off shoe soles,
From stolen breadbag-Save us, Lord!
From tundra lying on its back facing the sky,
From nightmare of white nights,
From swarms of mosquitoes,
From sudden and unexpected night marches,
From leaden dawns to sooty dusks,
- Holy God!
- Holy Almighty!
Holy and Immortal, save us, oh Lord!
We the sinners,
We the tired,
We the ones given up to vast expanses,
We the ones cast out to be eaten alive by the frozen wastes,
We the ones deprived of humanity and legal rights,
Trampled like grass,
Hounded down and rounded up-
We the louse-infested beggars,
We the ones stupefied by hunger,
We the nameless multitude
Poisoned by wrongdoings,
We the filthy,
We the ragged,
We at times the ludicrous,
We the consoled,
We the sinners,
You Lord God we beg,
The Living and True,
The One and Indivisible,
- Holy God!
- Holy Almighty!
- Holy and Everlasting, have mercy on us!
Through the last,
Wound of thy Son
through His Blood and Suffering
Amen - Amen - Amen
The Soviet government called these death camps “corrective and re-educational places of detention.” Yet, only an estimated 10-15 percent of the inmates were actually criminals who might have benefited from “re-education.” While they were a minority, they were usually better off than the rest of the inmate population. The criminals lived in solidarity among themselves and were able to extort better food and treatment while continuing their criminal practices. They stole everything they could lay their hands on, especially food from other inmates, and camp authorities did nothing to stop them. The remaining 85 percent were simply ordinary citizens forced into close association with the professional criminals and into heath-destroying labor.
In addition to imprisoning their own citizens, the Soviet government arrested and deported between one and two million Poles. Seventeen days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Stalin invaded the eastern part of Poland. Within months deportations began. Women and men, children and elderly were driven out of their homeland and deported to various concentration camps in Russia’s northeast, in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
Generally speaking, the deportees’ sense of “Polishness” was perceived as a threat to Communism. No trials, no due process, no reasons given except for the phrase “you are an enemy of the Soviet people.” That was what my mother (Aleksandra Napierstkow) was told when the NKWD came to her house at night and told her parents to pack in fifteen minutes and get ready for deportation. Her story is that of pain and suffering, but most importantly of survival.
My mother was twenty-five years old in 1940, when she and her parents were arrested and sent into a labor camp. My mother and grandmother were assigned to a prison camp in Tutujas-Kajzak in the Kemerovo region; my grandfather was separated from them and sent to a different prison in Iskitim, also in the Kemerovo region. My mother never saw him again. In 1943 she learned that he was shot, but no information was received as to where he was buried-if he was buried at all. My mother and other Polish deportees were “freed” in 1941, after Hitler declared war against the Soviet Union, but they remained in Siberia. They had to leave the camp, however. From the camp they had to walk two hundred miles with several other “freed” people in order to get to the nearest village. Many in that group did not survive the journey. For two years, from 1941 to 1943, they were under surveillance by the Soviet authorities and could not leave the village to which they were assigned.
My mother’s family was middle class before 1940: it owned a house, farm buildings, and 250 acres of land in Dubnoviche in the region of Polesie, Poland. The Soviets mostly targeted the wives and children of landowners, military and government officials, and the best educated, because they feared them and wanted to exterminate as large a number of the Polish intelligentsia as possible. In her unpublished memoirs, my mother vividly recalled that tragic night when she was taken away:
The NKWD came in the middle of the night. They banged on the door and demanded that we open it. Several soldiers in Soviet uniforms barged into the house saying the Soviet Government sent them. They read our names and declared we were the enemy of the people. We were told that we were under arrest to be sent to prison camp to be re-educated as to how to live in the communist society, to learn to work and not to sit and be waited on by the servants. We grabbed what we could in a rush and they would not allow us to take many things.
My mother and her parents were taken to a temporary camp in nearby Mikaszewice. This transitory camp was a large plaza surrounded by barbed wire. In the middle of it there was a small train station where people slept. The place was crammed with people, crying children, filth, stuffiness, lice. They were kept there by NKWD from February until May as they brought more families-mostly women and children-from nearby farms. Finally the cattle cars arrived and people were loaded into them. Zofia Metelicka wrote:
On the Way to Exile
I remember an early April morning
And persistent knocking at our door
Loud harsh words of soldiers
And bitter tears of helplessness
Fear and resignation in Mother’s eyes
And pitiful crying of small children
A gray sky enveloped with fog
And a day which did not resemble spring.
Long weeks spent locked in a freight car
To us they seemed like years
Before us the Urals, behind us Europe
Are they taking us to the end of the earth?
One morning the train came to a halt
They opened the doors, and ordered us out
Then loaded us and our luggage together
Onto huge cargo trucks.
All around us-vast and gray-lies the Kirghiz steppe
We journey endlessly and time drags
Until, finally, a remote village in the steppe
And wretched huts-here is our destination.
How will we live in the middle of this desolation,
Among people alien and almost savage
Despair and grief rip open our hearts
Deep yearning for our country awakens.
Years passed by in squalor and cold
And terrible hunger took away our strength
Many have never returned
Lonely graves remain on the steppe.
After three weeks on the train, my mother’s transport arrived in Stalinsk (now Novokuznetsk) in the Kemerovo district. They were then loaded into barges on the Tom River and taken deeper into the taiga forest to a labor camp located on the Kajzak-Tutujas River. When they got to the river they had to walk all day through the taiga to get to their destination. The camp was a large enclosure surrounded by barbed wire fences with high towers for the guards at each corner. Inside were camp offices, kitchens, and the barracks. The prisoners would stay inside the barracks and sleep on bunk beds that were pieces of wood with no mattresses or coverings. The cold was intolerable, reaching temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Each day they were awakened at 5 o’clock in the morning and divided into groups of twenty. Clothed in rags, they had to walk for several miles in darkness and cold to reach a place where they would chop and haul lumber for twelve hours a day. The prisoners had to work regardless of weather. People would get frostbite; amputations (performed in primitive conditions) were common. Some died from trees falling on them: they were unable to escape because the snow was waist high. My mother had to haul and burn branches which sometimes were as big as a large tree.
No food was given to the prisoners during the day. Sometimes, as my mother remembers, she would bring a piece of frozen black bread, melt snow in a can over a fire, put bread crumbs in it and drink it. A fellow prisoner Zofia Metelicka wrote the following:
Our Daily Bread
I remember how my Mother
Made the sign of the cross over bread
And from the time I was an infant in the cradle
She taught me respect for it.
I remember how in the steppes of the Siberian exile
Bread was a distant memory.
To hold a slice of bread in my hands
Was my only desire.
I lift a breadcrumb to my lips.
Give us oh Lord “Our daily bread”
I ask You this in prayer.
In summer, men had to stand knee-deep in water or mud for twelve hours. As my mother recalls, despite mild temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, there were swarms of mosquitoes that literally ate people alive-from their bites, they were all swollen. “We used tar and gasoline. No medicine, no medical supplies, no soap. Appalling sanitary conditions. People were dying of starvation and exhaustion, and many went blind because of malnourishment and a lack of vitamins.”
My mother’s story is reflected in the poems written by other survivors. The following three poems describe an arrest and a deportation. The titles of these poems refer to the fact that in February-April 1940 the Soviets intensified mass arrests of Polish nationals (as well as committing the murders of Polish officers in Katyn and elsewhere). Here is a poem by Anna Rudawcowa:
April 13, 1940
On the night of April 13 the world collapsed
And a new, completely different, horrible world came into being
When in darkness an outstretched brutal paw
Destroyed our nest-our family home.
A knock on the door. Clenched and cunning,
Importunate hands yank at the doorknob.
A flash of consciousness: this is the end, the end!
Quiet prayer “Under Your Protection, O Mother of God.”
The pounding of heavy boots. . .In the window a flashlight
Flickers and then goes away.
In their little beds the awakened children cry,
And their hearts pound, pound like hammers.
This child’s eyes are insane with fear,
Pale, trembling lips, she is frantic!
A shout in Russian from the other side of the door: “Open up! This is the Soviet government.”
And the thought: we’re done for. . . no use trying. . . nothing can be done!
Now they’re inside the apartment-smiling, polite,
But something lurks in the depths of their eyes
And the heart senses danger-
The intended blow will fall at any moment.
A house-search. The shadow on the wall like a stain,
Spy-like eyesight which penetrates each object
Precious mementos in greedy brutish paws.
And finally the verdict. Almost a death sentence.
The journey in dark freight cars. Like cattle!
Small barred windows. One last time we see before us
This Polish soil, this dearest and sacred soil,
This martyred land that says farewell to us.
And then the sad and ashen-gray Russian fields,
Hungry despondent people standing on the train station platform
And the gray sky covered by clouds,
Our lifeless eyes and helpless hands.
And finally the steppes. The steppes and bent grasses,
The faces of the Kirghiz people, the wind’s savage wailing,
And the first year among the wretched huts
Long as eternity, dark as ink.
Another deportee, Helena Bartoszewska, wrote the following:
February 10, 1940
Oh Poland, our beloved land
All drenched in blood in 1939.
Not only had to send your sons and daughters to Siberia.
The 10th of February we will remember.
The Soviets came as we slept
And put our children on sleds
And took us to the train station.
Oh horrible moment! Oh horrible hour!
A pregnant woman forgets her labor-pains,
But we can’t forget that moment
When they locked us up inside a dark boxcar, like in a coffin.
Oh farewell Poland! Farewell sweet home,
Farewell the soil that nourished us,
Farewell sweet sun and golden stars,
Because we are leaving our homeland.
We rode four days across the Polish soil
At least we said farewell to her through the gaps in the boxcars’ walls
On the fifth day the Soviet locomotive started out
As if each of us had been stabbed with a dagger.
Days and nights go by, weeks go by
Once a day they give us bread and water,
We travel through Russia and the Urals
And keep going farther and farther.
On March 4th the locomotive came to a halt,
And then another transport began.
We go by truck, and then on sleds,
Across the snowy taiga, rivers, and forests.
Sorrowful was our caravan
Every morning they gave us hot water and bread,
Frozen children are falling off the sleds,
And whenever we stopped for the night those who died were left behind.
Oh our Poland! Our sacred land
Where are your sons, where are your eaglets?
Today they arrived in the Siberian taiga.
When will we ever see you again?
The golden sun sadly rose today,
When it looked into the barracks this morning,
It saw coffins dressed in pine,
Mothers knelt weeping over them.
We are left to ourselves, the guards have abandoned us,
For what’s there for them to do with us in this place?
They locked us away from the world.
Forests, trees are everywhere.
Here the little birds don’t even sing to us.
Cruel typhus rages among us,
more people lie in the cemetery.
Spring arrived, the sun came out,
But here in this place it brought us no joy.
Holy Maiden! You who shines from the Ostra Brama!
We won’t let them tear you out of our faithful hearts!
Return us, return us to the land of our fathers.
Queen of Poland, Virgin Maiden.
Zbigniew Czerepowicki wrote:
Reflections of a Siberian
And the year 1940 came,
February tenth-a cold chill,
In the night people were awakened from sleep
To be taken away to the East.
We left behind
Our homeland, property and belongings,
To reach the gates of the taiga
After a month on the road.
For many long years,
We lived in Siberia.
We survived Gehenna
Who will give us back this lost time?
We lived lives of adversity and misery
Each day as long as a century
Our hearts desired
The end of suffering.
He who lived through those years,
Whom hunger did not kill
Who survived the forced labor
He was truly a miracle.
These poems are full of sorrow, but they also convey strength and hope. These “hounded down” and “chased after” people were half-starved and emaciated by heavy labor, yet they were capable of reflecting on their faith and expressing love and yearning for their homeland. Anna Rudawcowa wrote the following:
In the Siberian hut
It’s cold and gloomy in my Siberian hut
White with frost and gray with worry.
A little image of the sorrowful Mother of God
Has appeared on the snow-covered window.
Freezing cold has become a permanent guest in my Siberian hut,
Hunger knocks at the door more and more insistently.
Where to go? Where to look for mercy?
Who-whether living or dead-will hear us?
Where are our legal rights? We have been turned into cattle and paupers,
We are human pariahs, the victims of an evil and violent power
Who has judged us and who will dare
To help us in our last hour?
In the Siberian hut children cry from hunger.
Cowering, bluish from cold, they lie on a pallet,
Who has condemned them to the life of a homeless dog,
To the abject fate of imprisoned animals?
Who has entangled our paths so tragically,
Who cast us onto the Siberian dunes of snow
Where freezing cold and misery lurk in every corner,
Where death and insanity bear their black teeth?
So horrible it is to die in exile,
To kill the heart’s last glimmer of hope
To fertilize foreign soil with one’s own ashes
And, dreaming of Poland, to yearn for her even in the grave!
No! to endure everything-the hunger and burning cold,
To say nothing, to complain to no one,
Like a hunted-down dog who is dying,
Yet wants to drag itself home with its last bit of strength!
Maria Niwinska wrote:
Wigilia (Christmas Eve)
Wigilia. Against the sky’s backdrop
A small star trembles.
The holiday is approaching. I would need nothing
If only you were here with me.
Enough of the four-year-long torment and suffering
Enough of the nightmares.
Do I have to die and leave this world
In order to see you again?
Does barb wire perhaps separate you
From people today,
And are you awakened each night from a deep sleep
By the biting German knout?
And your days there, do they pass
Like a painful rosary of adoration
When for each word spoken in Polish
A German fist falls?
Or has God perhaps changed your soul
Into a silvery star,
And now you’re looking at us from the expanses
Of celestial Milky Ways?
The sun has set on the horizon
And darkness has swept over the world.
I stretch out my yearning hands to you
I almost hear your footsteps.
But evidently in the Lord God’s eyes
My days on earth aren’t over yet.
And the road of penance has not yet come to an end
Nor the rosary of tears.
Again, Zofia Metelicka:
If I were an eagle of the Steppe
Or the warm breath of the wind
Or a cloud floating on high
Or the distant echo of a memory
Then would I fly away to my country
Even though the journey would be long and hard
There my friends are and family home
There the land of my birth yearns and waits
I won’t be growing wings on my shoulders
I won’t be a wind or an echo
Only in a dream will I see my homeland
Greet her with a warm heart, with a happy smile.
And in the morning when I open my eyes
Right away the heavy burden of my suffering will return
And I will be waiting for the prophetic dream
In order to behold once more my beloved Homeland.
Other Polish women were deported to Kazakhstan rather than to Siberia, among them Józefa Auterfoff. She wrote:
Enough punishment, Righteous Lord,
May Your hand foretell a journey for us
Receive from us orphans this fervent supplication
May Your face no longer be obscured from us.
May the cold Siberian exile be only a memory,
May the freezing snow storms remain behind us,
And the exiles trusting in the might of Your proclamation
Shall walk away from Siberian exile.
This arduous journey will not be torturous to us
Because from afar Poland will shine before us
And the great distance will not be a tribulation
Because the gates to our homeland will be opened.
May one more request fly straight up to heaven,
Which we fervently uphold-
May we never be wanting for daily bread
For this oh Lord we will be continually grateful to you.
The sixteen-year-old Wacława Batowska wrote:
Oh Land of Siberia
Oh Land of Siberia! Land forever sad.
Why do you constantly enchain our loved ones
To your cold bosom? Why are you so cruel
That even a child’s smile dies on its sweet lips?
Did the Lord curse you from the very first day he created you,
And has He branded you with an indelible mark?
And made you the seat of His anger and wrath?
Will you not bring forth any joy and happiness?
Covered with expanses of uninhabited taiga and steppes.
Oh land of Siberia - strange and incomprehensible,
Will you appease God with your gifts?
Or will you remain cursed by Him for all the ages?
Will the exiled, homeless wanderers always water
Your cracked and shrivelled bosom with their tears?
Will you always hear only groaning and crying?
Only wistful sighs for the homeland?
Forever on your entire expanses you shall have
No other adornment
Than leaning crosses, than white crosses
A monument to the Polish victims of Siberian and Central Asian labor camps was built in 1990 in Jasna Gora, Poland. It bears the following inscription: “If I were ever to forget them, may God forget me.”
NOTE: This and subsequent poems have been translated by Halina Ablamowicz and Kevin Christianson. The poems were originally published in Polish in Sybir w poezji. Antologia Poetycka edited by Robert Gorczyca (Słupsk: Związek Sybiraków, 1993).