Halina (Januszewicz) KOZLOWSKA

 

LIFE IN KRESY

I was born in Wilno on January 20, 1924.  My parents were Antoni and Anna (nee Baranowska) Januszewicz, and I had two older brothers: Jan was 5 years older, and Antoni Jerzy was 2 years older.  We lived at 2 Popowska Street, in a beautiful house that was set on a hillside, with an incredible view of the surrounding countryside.

We were a very happy family, with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, frequently filling the house with joy and laughter.  After the death of Marshal Pilsudski, his personal doctor, Colonel Wolczynski, came to live with us, and I remember that the Marshal’s widow once came to visit, accompanied by one of her daughters.

Father was a businessman in Wilno; he owned several delicatessens, and participated in a number of other business ventures.   He built the building next to our home, which housed 5 apartments, and was completed in 1938.   The house on the other side of ours was the home of my uncle – my father’s brother – who had 2 sons and 2 daughters. 

At the time that the war broke out, my brothers were attending the Jesuit College and I was attending the High School runs by the nuns of the Holy Family of Nazareth.  During the Soviet occupation, all the Catholic schools were closed, so  I ended up in a secular school where we were taught in both Polish and Lithuanian. 

During this time, a constant sense of fear and apprehension permeated our daily lives; the sense that something horrible could happen at any moment.    It was a very trying time, particularly for the adults, and so many conditions of life were changing.

The Russians started to allocate spaces in private homes for the use of their own people.  We managed to avoid having any Russians billeted in our house, thanks to Father Kucharski, one of the professors at the Jesuit College.  Since each room in a house had to be occupied, he arranged for a number of families to live with us.   I still recall some of their names:  Professor Zujewski and his wife, Ziutek Karnicki, and a nun in civilian clothing, whose name I no longer remember.

My father had been warned that his name was on the NKVD deportation list, so he had been spending his nights away from the house for some time.  However, the 13th of June was my father’s Name Day, so he had come home in order that we could celebrate the occasion with him.  We did not have a party of any kind, but many friends and relatives did come to the house with flowers and good wishes for him, and the house was overflowing with bouquets of flowers in every room.  As a consequence, my father did spend that night at home.

 

DEPORTATION & EVACUATION

The next morning, at 7 am, the NKVD arrived.  There were soldiers with rifles and bayonets, and NKVD officers with pistols.  The whole house was surrounded, and there was no means of escape.  We were all force into the dining room, in our pyjamas and robes, while they carried out a brutal search of the premises.

The search lasted a very long time …. from 7 am until 5 pm.  The content of every drawer and cupboard were emptied – books, dishes, everything, ended up in heaps on the floor.  I particularly remember how stunned they were when they opened my father’s closet and saw his clothes – it was evident that they had never seen a man with such an array of clothing. 

At 5 pm they read the arrest order, and we learned that not only was Father being arrested, but so was the entire family.  They gave us 30 minutes to get dressed and prepare to leave our home; all the while controlling what it is that we were permitted to take.  

As we were about to leave the house, my brother Antoni, knowing that he would be playing for the very last time, sat down at the piano.  He was a very accomplished pianist, and had won a number of inter-school contests.  He played my mother’s favorite piece from the operetta ‘Lehara’ and finished with the Raindrop Prelude and the Funeral March by Chopin.  What was amazing was the reaction of the NKVD:  they all stayed perfectly still, with rifles and pistols in hand, and listened intently through the entire time that my brother played.  Even though each of these pieces was of considerable length, no one interrupted him.  Through the open windows, we could hear people crying in the street.  Friends and neighbours had heard that we were being arrested, and had come to see us one last time.  They also stood transfixed by the music that my brother played.  This was our farewell moment with our home.  (Years later, I learned that after we were deported, the then President of Lithuania who took up residence in our home.)

We were loaded into a waiting lorry, with friends handing us a variety of things for our journey, and we were driven to the goods station at Nowa Wilejka.   My father was separated from us, was not permitted to take any of his belongings with him, and was sent to the Urals.  My mother, my brothers, and I, were sent to the Barnaul Region of Siberia.  We were all part of the first transport of civilians from the Wilno area to the USSR.

We were in the cattle wagon for about 3 weeks.  Several times, it happened that the train stood on sidings for some days before resuming the journey eastwards.  Once a day, food (if it can truly be called food) was brought to us in pails.  It was usually some sort of soup.  People did not have any cups or bowls with them, so sharing this soup became quite a challenge! 

Once, during this journey, we were permitted to detrain, in order to wash.  But the water turned out to be more mud than water, and it was impossible to accomplish the desired task.  During the journey, several wagons would be detached at a given location, while the rest of the train carried on.  In this way, people were settled in various places along the way.  It was obvious that they wanted to keep a large number of Poles from being together in a single place.

When we left the train at the station in Barnaul, and were transported to the labour camp in lorries.  Our camp did not have barbed wire fencing, because escape was truly unthinkable.  Where could one possibly escape to, when we were thousands of miles in the ‘middle of nowhere’?

We learned that the first arrivals there had been Ukrainians.  They had been deported to the area some dozen years earlier.  When they had arrived, there was nothing there at all, and they had to build shelters for themselves.  As a result, most of them died, because it was impossible to survive the harsh winter in those conditions.  The Ukrainian woman, who told me about this, also warned me not to tell anyone about the kind of life I had been living in Poland, because this would lead to serious repercussions against me.  The people at the camp had never seen clothing like ours, and this engendered a great deal of jealously towards us.

We worked in the fields, removing the weeds from among the crop that was growing.  We sometimes managed to steal some potatoes from the harvest, and this helped to keep us alive.

We also worked with the combines that were used to harvest the wheat.  The combines were very old, so they frequently broke down.  This was a good thing, as it would afford us some time to rest.  My job was to stand at the very top of the combine and pull on a very thick rope.  The rope was attached to a mechanism that separated the hay from the wheat and made it fall away, thus preventing it from clogging up the combine.

At one point, I contracted yellow fever and was so weak that I could not possibly walk the few kilometers back to the camp.  All the others went back at the end of the day, and I was left lying alone in the field.  I lay there all night, and all the next day, before I was finally able to manage the return trip to the camp. 

Luckily, we only spent a few months in Barnaul, and then ‘amnesty’ was declared.  We all left the camp and headed south to join the Polish Army that was being formed. 

KAZAKHSTAN

When we reached Kazakhstan, my mother and I were sent to a state farm, while my brothers went on to Lugowoy, to join the Polish Army.  They returned 3 weeks later, wearing British uniforms!  We were amazed to see them, wearing such uniforms and proper boots; things that had not been part of our daily lives for many months.

The hut in which we lived in Kazakhstan was made of a mixture of mud, grass, and cow manure. In the centre of the hut, was a pit for cooking in, and a large kettle would hang on a spit over the fire.   There was a hole in the roof to let out the smoke.  There were no beds, so we had to gather the stalks from cotton plants, and sleep on those, so as to avoid sleeping directly on the ground. 

The Kazaks were very kind to us, and helped us a great deal.  We received very limited rations of wheat, and the seeds needed to be ground, so they would lend us their grinding wheels so that we could make flour. 

I would regularly visit my brothers at the Army Camp in Lugovoy, accompanied by my girlfriend Dula Goralowna.  My brothers would provide us with food and other provisions, like soap, that we would then take back to the state farm where my mother waited.    We would make this journey by illegally hopping on a cargo train, and hiding until it reached the station at Lugovoy. 

The Army began to make plans to evacuate to Persia, so one of my brothers was given leave to come back to the state farm with us, to get my mother and the others.   He was given some money to help pay for any costs that this would entail.  Reaching the state farm, he was not able to convince the others to come back with us.  They thought that this was another Russian trick and refused to budge.  Here, they had a roof over their heads and some assurance that they would be fed.  They were not comfortable setting out into the unknown again.

In the end, only my mother, Dula Goralowna, and I, left the state farm with my brother.  He had a ticket for the return train journey, but the Russians were refusing to sell train tickets to any Poles, so the rest of us had no ticket.  When the train arrived, my brother handed my mother up into the carriage first, but the conductress pushed my mother back out of the train.    In the end, only my brother was able to board and return to Lugavoy.  I hopped onto the steps of the train at the last moment, and held on to the outside handle for the 80 km trip. 

I had left my mother and girlfriend behind at the station, sitting in the snow.  Reaching Lugovoy, a Polish officer told me that I would have to decide if I were going with the army to Krasnowodsk, or staying behind in Russia.  I answered that I could not possibly leave my mother in the cold and snow by herself.  So I went into the station and tried every which way to purchase a ticket for her, but the person in the ticket office categorically refused to sell me a ticket, even though I had the money to pay for it.

A couple then came to the rescue.  These were people I did not even know, but they offered to lend me their ticket.  They would get on the train first and show their ticket, then they would pass the ticket to me through the window, and I would get onboard using the same ticket.  (This was a huge risk for these strangers, because the conductor goes through the carriage a second time and punches a hole in each ticket.)  I reached their seats, returned their ticket to them, and we agreed that when the conductor would come by, I would pretend to be sleeping.  When the conductor came around, he shook me awake and demanded to see my ticket, which I pretended to look for.  But the couple, who had lent me theirs, began arguing with the fellow, saying that the first conductor had seen my ticket, otherwise I would never have been allowed to board.  So, again, these total strangers risked serious repercussions in order to help me.  In the end, the conductor was distracted by a commotion at the other end of the carriage, and he never returned. 

I returned to the station where my mother and girlfriend were waiting, and assured them that another train would soon be coming by to take us all to Lugowoy.   When the train did come, the Polish soldier onboard insisted that there was no way they could take us, because there was no room for any more civilians.  As he was making this argument, my brother suddenly appeared and said that he had orders from the Colonel that we were to be included in the transport.  This is how we finally were able to join the March 1942 transport to Krasnowodsk.

 

MIDDLE EAST

We travelled to Pahlevi by ship, and when we landed we were given showers, clean clothing, and then we were transported to Teheran.  I had been separated from my brothers in Krasnowodsk, but I managed to see them both again in Teheran.  Little did I know that this would be our last meeting. 

In Teheran, we also found my father, in a hospital run by Hindus.  He had been evacuated from the USSR in a pair of torn pyjamas, covered in a tattered blanket, and missing all his teeth.  He said that, had he passed me on the street, he would never have recognized me- that’s how much I had changed in just one year!

I volunteered for the Army, and attended a Red Cross nursing course, in Teheran.  The course did not last several years, as they do here.  Everything was accelerated, because the need for nurses was so great.  People kept arriving, and they were all walking skeletons.  Many were ill, and many died.  The hospital tents just kept multiplying 

The tent where I first worked, held 25 patients, and all of them were very seriously ill.  They were all adults, except for one girl, who was about 11 or 12 years old.  I tried to do everything in my power to save her, even though there were few meds and little anyone could do. I even spent the night looking after her, rather than going back to my quarters to sleep. Unfortunately, she died the following night, and we never even learned her name.  I have never forgotten her. 

Later, I was moved to the children’s hospital, which was not in a tent, but in an unfinished school building.  The conditions were much better there.  A child died one night and, in the middle of the night, I wrapped the body in a sheet and brought it to the morgue tent.  It was frightening to do this in total darkness, but I just could not imagine the children waking up next to a corpse.

SCOTLAND

I spent a brief period in Iraq and, in 1943, I was sent (through Palestine and Egypt) to Scotland, where I continued to work as a nurse, and also finished my college studies.  More and more Poles kept arriving, and the hospital was always crowded.  This is where I met my husband, whom I married 2 years later.

My mother remained in Teheran, with my father, who was still in hospital.   My parents later moved to a camp in Lebanon, and then came to England after the war, where they lived in a number of PRC camps. 

When my brothers died, no one at the school wanted to announce this to me.  Jan was killed in action on 22 July 1944, and Antoni was killed exactly 4 months later, on 22 November 1944.  They are both buried at the Loreto cemetery.   Antoni received the Cross of Valour, the Monte Cassino Cross, and the Italy Star, and was post-humously awarded the Virtuti Militari.  In one of his letters to me Antoni had said “here, only the wooden crosses really count – not the medals”.  I visited their graves in the 1960s.

LIFE IN CANADA

After our marriage, my husband and I moved to London, where our two sons were born.  My husband was 12 years my senior, and had completed law in Warsaw, and was very fluent in English.  But work was hard to come by, so we decided to move to Canada.

We arrived in Canada in 1950, with two very young children.  My husband’s cousin, Gienek Baranowski, was an engineer working for a large paper mill in Latuque.  He sponsored us, guaranteeing my husband a job at the paper mill. 

Latuque was a nightmare.  The smell from the paper mill was unbelievable, and we just could not get used to it.  I decided to come to Montreal to find a place to live, and then sent for my husband and children.  He found work relatively quickly, and I stayed home with the children.  When my mother came from England to live with us, I went to work in a factory that produced medicines.  Later, I learned to type and worked at Proctor & Gamble.  My last job was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where I worked for over 10 years.

I visited Wilno for the first time in 1992, and was incredibly well received by the current resident of our home.  The lady even offered to have me stay there for the duration of my time in Wilno.   The visit to Wilno was a very emotional one, and shook me to the core.

EXHIBIT: Women in the Polish Armed Forces in the West 1941-1946

Over the years, I have been very active in the Polish community of Montreal, and helped to organize many events and fundraising efforts.  In 2001, I began work on an exhibit that would celebrate the contribution of Polish women to the war effort of the Polish Armed Forces in the West.  I spent more than a year, gathering photographs and memorabilia, and designing the exhibit panels.  The exhibit was funded by the Polish Veterans Association (Marszalek J. Pilsudski branch), with the assistance of the Polish missions in Canada.  I managed to gather over 200 original photos from Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Italy and the UK, along with a few from the USSR.   Most of the women represented in the exhibit managed to flee the USSR when ‘amnesty’ was declared for Polish citizens that had been deported there from the Eastern Borderlands.  Many ended up in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Polish Second Corps, in nursing, communications and transportation, while others served in the Polish Air Force in the UK.  These were young women, sometimes young girls, who readily volunteered to help with the war effort, in the hopes of helping to eventually free their homeland.

The exhibit saw the light of day in 2002, on the 100th anniversary of Polonia in Montreal.  From the 12th to the 25th of November, 2002, it was displayed at the Polish Consulate in Montreal.  It was then shown at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa, and also at the Polish Consulate in Toronto.  The exhibit was viewed by former President of Poland, Richard Kacarowski, as well as by Prime Minister Harper.   In 2004, the exhibit was shipped to Poland and displayed at the “Centralna Bibioteka Wojskowa im Marszalka Pilsudskiego” in Warsaw, from the 1st to the 30th of October 2005.

In recent years, because of increasing vision problems, I have had to curb my social activities, and am no longer an active member of any of the Polonia associations.  I now live a quiet life in Montreal, enjoying visits from my sons and their families. 

Halina passed away on November 26, 2012 at the age of 88.  She leaves behind 2 sons (Richard and Mark), 4 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren.