Hela Moroz (née Pateluch)
Written for Hela Moroz by Alicja Swiatek Christofides, the daughter of Hela’s friend from the Valivade Polish Camp, Sabina Swiatek
(née Marczewska), who greatly treasured their friendship.
I was born in 1928, in the village of Zarudzie, in the Tarnopolskie area (wojewódstw)o and lived there with my parents, Jan and Maria Pateluch and my older sister Anna, our brother, Piotr, and sister Tekla, till the Russians forcibly deported us to Siberia in 1940 and our lives changed forever.
We had a farm with horses, pigs, cows and chickens. There were stables, and two main houses: one old building and one new one. We lived in the new building which also served as the village post office. My father was the postmaster and postman for the area up to Zborów while my mother looked after me and my brother and sister, as well as looking after the farm, which was quite a responsibility.
We had some help in running the farm: a young man came to help. My sister, who was at college, training to be a dressmaker, also helped out when she could. My father used to train Polish army cadets. Sledges and skis for the cadets were kept in the old house in our grounds.
When the Russians came, my brother, sister and I were still at school. My older sister, Anna, lived 8 kilometres away at Zborów after getting married at the age of 17. My father’s brother’s wife was a well-off lady from the ‘folwark’, the grand estate, where my brother and sister helped out with cherry picking in the summer. I remember being annoyed I was deemed too young to go with them!
My father happened to be in Zborów when the Russian bombs fell. He didn’t realise that bombs were being dropped by Russians not Germans. He only realised that Russian planes were bombing the area when he found a piece of aeroplane wing on the ground nearby and saw it had the hammer and sickle on it. In fact, the Germans did not come to the southeastern part of Poland; it was the Russians who attacked and invaded this part of Poland.
On top of this, Ukrainians had started killing Polish people in 1939, a fact which we were aware of; the Germans were turning the local Ukrainians against the Poles and organising them to kill Poles for them. We were aware they were shooting Poles in the village and on the edges of the Dunajec river. One Ukrainian man killed his mother just because she was Polish. Because of this turmoil, Polish army families started to move to Romania. The local roads became so congested with these evacuees together with families travelling by horse and cart fleeing the Germans from the western part of Poland, there were traffic jams everywhere. Previously, Poles and Ukrainians had co-existed side by side, with children of both nationalities attending school together; my father went to school with Ukrainians as well as local Polish children. Local policemen told my father that meetings were being held in the area where we lived, between Ukrainian boys and men who were brainwashing them against the Poles. Who these men were exactly, we did not know but killings took place because of such meetings.
My father was not called up to join the Polish army as certain groups of the population such as teachers, policemen, various officials, including postal workers were exempt. (However, he did join the Polish army later in the war.)
When he was eventually arrested in our house by the Russians, it was only by the smallest stroke of luck that he avoided being killed. He was taken to be shot in a nearby field, where many Polish people were executed. He was asked if he had a last request; he asked for a cigarette even though he didn’t smoke. Luckily for him, a Russian officer with Russian soldiers arrived in a jeep. The officer asked about the reason for the commotion and what my father was being shot for. As a result of further questions, my father and a few remaining men were eventually released. That was how close he came to being executed. However, he was sent to the jail in the village. My mother used to take food to him. After a few weeks, he disappeared. We later found out he was in Kamciatka, in the northern part of Siberia.
I continued going to school. On 10th February 1940, in the middle of the night, the first group of Polish people near us were forcibly taken to the station and then, as they eventually found out, to Siberia. These were the ‘colonists’, WWI veterans and their families who were given permission to live and settle in a separate area near us. My family thought perhaps they were the only ones that would be deported and we would not be taken.
Our hopes were unfounded: at four in the morning on 13th April that year, when we were all still in bed, Russian soldiers, with rifles and bayonets, charged in. “Quick, quick, quick!” they shouted at us. Some were polite, but others were heartless. In a panic, my mother started packing what she could- bread, clothes… A soldier saw eggs packed in a bucket with hay. He kicked it over saying, “You won’t need that; there’s plenty of food in Russia.” So that was how we knew we’d be taken to Russia. “Your husband wants you to go there,” one soldier said. We didn’t believe him. Father was actually working down silver mine as a slave labourer in Siberia, we found out much later from the Red Cross, when we also discovered how terrible their conditions had been. (The workers were barely fed and even resorted to eating the flesh of dead dogs and out of desperation, that of dead workers, in order to survive.)
And so in April 1940, I was taken along with my mother, brother and sister, Tekla, by cart and horse to the station on the edge of the village and then on the long journey onto Siberia. My older, married sister, Anna, lived eight kilometres away and was not deported. People were stealing our farm produce and the animals, so when my sister learnt this, she moved back into the family house and managed to stay there till the end of the war. (After the war, she moved to the south of Poland.)
In the rail cattle trucks, there was no seating, just a shelf on which people sat or slept. More people joined at different stations. Some men made a makeshift toilet by making a hole in the floor in a corner of the carriage. There was no privacy: it was undignified for us all. People tried to sleep on the floor of the carriage under the shelf, too. It was packed as there were many families in one carriage.
Anna followed the railway lines and somehow, eventually managed to catch up with the train. She passed some food to us through the tiny window- some bread and eggs for which we were immensely grateful. We were in the carriage for at least two weeks. As it was April by now and the snow was starting to melt. The train stopped now and then and we got some hot water from the locomotive for a drink. We were given no food during the whole journey; we were lucky Anna had given us at least something at the start of our ordeal.
We eventually came to Novosibirsk, by the Irtysz river. We were put onto a large boat and after a whole day on the boat, came to Pavlodar, a village in the Pavlodarskaya Oblast (in the ‘Majski rejon’). There were hundreds of people there. It was a plain, treeless, grassy landscape. We were ordered into a barn for sheep and all the people there had to sleep in rows on the floor.
Russian civilians came to choose the Polish people they wanted to work on their farms. My brother was keenly wanted by a few farmers as they saw a young lad as a useful helper for tending their sheep. These were nomadic farmers, moving on from place to place. They followed the sheep as they moved from pastures to pasture, looking for fresh grass. The farmers and workers slept in tents or just under the stars. This area was near the Mongolian mountains. The workers like my brother had food: now and again they lamb soup, perhaps potatoes, even bread when there was any. These people spoke Russian and Mongolian and as we had had to learn Russian in school so we managed basic communication with them.
I stayed with the women and children in the village while my mother, brother and sister went off to look after the sheep with the other workers. I used to sleep at night in the school building. We were the oldest children there but there were several infants still at the breast. These children didn’t succumb so easily to illness and disease as many of us did; many people died. My brother became ill, too. My mother and my brother were dipping sheep in disinfectant, which is what I think stopped them from getting fatally ill.
My mother, like many others, suffered from night blindness. Somehow, we got some liver to boil up for her and so she gradually got her vision back. We all inhaled the steam from the boiled liver to prevent getting night blindness ourselves. There was no medical provision except one particular time when I was ill; I managed get medical help was when we were near a village. I was seen by a doctor and given some liver for its nutrient content.
Life following the nomadic sheep farmers continued till the inappropriately called ‘amnesty’. (Stalin granted this to all Poles held as
prisoners and slave labour in Russia, on 12th August 1941.) Now things started to change: we were to be freed; the Russian government had to give people passports. All we knew was that we would travel to the south to someplace warm.
Everyone seemed to think going to Tashkent was the place to aim for. Railway stations started to be full of people wanting to get away. We also saw Russian men going off to join the army. We travelled at night, jumping from train to train as we had no tickets. We knew the Russian army were in the front carriages so we kept to the rear of the trains and stood so we could get off easily. Usually, no-one checked tickets but if there was a ticket inspection, we would jump off. At one point, my brother got left behind when he went to the toilet. Luckily, we managed to get back together at the next station.
At Tashkent we slept under the stars at the station. There were Polish officials (placówka) here, who checked passports and counted the number of children, to whom bread and milk were given. With money paid to us after working with the sheep, we bought whatever food was available at the stations. I remember there were queues for bread.
Arrangements were made for those who refused to go back to Poland to work on nearby farms. Along with a few other families, we went to a collective farm growing potatoes. I remember other farms grew beetroot or carrots. As usual, boys rather than girls or women were preferred as workers by the farmers. We found out that there were Polish tented army camps somewhere nearby. When we managed to get to one of the camps, we found there were old, roofless buildings designated for civilians. Our family group pitched camp by a wall- our temporary ‘home’. We were there for some time.
My mother went to the administration office there to find out whether my father was now in the army. They checked their lists. She was desperate to find out what had happened to him. Soldiers were going round the civilian areas to see if any men wanted to join the army or if any boys or girls wanted to join the cadets. When a soldier called out, “Anyone from Tarnopol?” she said, “Not Tarnopol but Zarudzie!” (the village we came from). The soldier said my brother and the girls should join the cadets and that my mother could join the army. She didn’t know what to do. My sister, though older, was small and skinny; the soldier initially got our ages, i.e. 12 and 15, the wrong way round. When he got it the right way round, he said I was not old enough; so my age got changed on the certificate! And this is how my sister, Tekla, and I joined the girl cadets (Junaczki). It was the only way we could get out of Russia; we could not have managed it as ordinary civilians.
Those who applied to be cadets had to be checked for lice and then to be fitted out with uniforms. I remember the girls queued up to have their heads shaved and to have a shower. My sister and I managed to cut our hair short so we didn’t have to have it shaved off; some of the others were jealous! An officer’s daughter who had long plaits also had to have them cut off. I remember her crying like mad as her hair was shaved off. After being de-loused and showered, we got our of our civilian rags. These were replaced with smart cadet uniforms.
Our journey continued. Still managing to be together with our mother, we went to Pahlavi, in Persia, by boat. It was terribly crowded, as the next photograph shows. We got separated from our mother on the boat as the girl cadets were on the deck, while my mother was below deck with other civilians, but luckily, we were re-united once we got off.
There were many different camps. The girl cadets’ tent was near the boys’ tent so luckily, we were near our brother again. Afterwards, Piotr went onto Egypt and Palestine, finally coming to England where he went to Lincoln to join the Air Force.
Meanwhile, I stayed on with my sister and mother in Pahlavi. There, soldiers were guarding the separate camps so it was not possible to go from one camp to another. It was hard to obtain water. Once, my mother brought a jug of water to the cadets’ camp for us but got stopped by a soldier on duty. He shouted for her to stop or he would shoot. She pretended she didn’t hear and somehow, got away with it. We used to dodge the soldiers to go and see our mother, too. Then, and throughout our whole time in exile, my mother was always very caring and protective of us. She was a truly brave lady.
From the camp, we went on to Teheran by coach. We continued to attend school in Teheran. When Persia became independent, we had to get out with the British. From Teheran, we went to Isfahan. As cadets, we were in Isfahan for about 2 years where we attended Polish school at the convent there.
This is a photograph of the convent, pupils and teachers at Isfahan. This building was where the adults were housed; the children had their own section.
After Isfahan, all the remaining Poles went to Karachi before going onto other places. While we were in Karachi for a few months, and had lessons in tents. The Poles were determined that education should be provided even in these temporary conditions.
From Karachi, we travelled to Valivade camp near Bombay, in India. This involved a two-week journey by boat to Bombay first, then a train ride to Valivade camp itself. I remember buildings made out of bamboo, even the windows there were made of bamboo. There was a hospital there too. The British government was involved in paying. Various different educational classes were run there, including traditional subjects such as mathematics as well as more vocational courses such as book-keeping, business, economics, tailoring and pattern-making. A priest taught us Latin. We were tested and took exams, including ‘High School Entrance and ‘Matriculation’ exams. Our courses were taught by Polish teachers. I later joined the Commercial School, which meant I did not have to continue with Latin.
It was in Valivade that I came to know Sabina Marczewska, later ‘Swiatek’. I had already met Krysia Czerkas, later ‘Jurga’, in Isfahan, where we were in the same class. I met up with them both later in England.
I left Valivade in September 1947 aboard S. Brand, arriving in Southampton, England, weeks later. From Southampton, we were taken to Passingworth Camp in Uckfield, Sussex, where we stayed in Nissen huts for almost a year.
After that, we were in Fairford Camp in Gloucestershire for three months or so. That is where I met up again with my friends Sabina and Krysia.
Meanwhile, my father was in Edinburgh, having joined the Polish army after being released from the silver mine in Siberia and then making his way to one of the several places where the men who survived their Russian imprisonment joined up with others to form a Polish army to fight with the Allies. My father fought under General Maczek’s command in Europe. In Holland, General Maczek has a museum dedicated to him as he is remembered and honoured there as the brave hero he was.
My mother had found out my father’s whereabouts while we were in India, thanks to the Red Cross. Luckily, my parents were able to correspond once they were put in touch, so we knew he would be in Scotland when we arrived in the UK. We finally met up after all those years, in Fairford.
My father seemed a stranger to me. He and one of his friends brought along some photos to show us. We were going to live in his friend’s house but those plans didn’t work out and we joined him in a B&B in Portobello, by the sea.
Later, my father bought a flat for us all to live in together. My brother had to sleep in the loft through lack of space.
Then my sister, Tola, got married and left for Canada with her officer husband. Sadly, my mother and father eventually separated; my brother went to live with my father in his flat, while I stayed with my mother. (She stayed with me till her death much later.)
While in Scotland, I worked for an outfitter’s in Edinburgh, sewing kilts and other skirts. Then I made skirts for his friend who supplied shops in Oxford Street, London. I designed one particular skirt, a wrap-over skirt with a fringe, which became very popular and sold like hot cakes. I should have made lots of money for designing it -but I didn’t get anything for it! I also later worked for a large department store in Wimbledon, in the clothes alterations department.
I attended the first reunion of the Poles from India at the Ladbroke Grove Swimming Pool Hall, which proved to be a memorable day for me. It was at the dance following the first meeting of Poles who had been to camps in India that I met my future husband, Rysiek Moroz, whom I’d first met in Isfahan when we were both cadets; he was in the boys’ section, no 3, and I was with the girls’ section, no 6. We were childhood sweethearts but got separated when I went to Valivade, India, and Rysiek went to the Polish Merchant Navy School in England in 1944
After this fateful meeting in London, our romance blossomed and we eventually married and had three children, Christopher, Emil and Barbara. My husband left the Navy and obtained work nearer our home in Wimbledon. I continued working, using my dressmaking skills. My mother lived with us till her death. She had always been so brave and strong looking after us wherever we were in the world during our forced exile and our journey to a new life in the UK. We were always part of the Polish community and attended church and Polish social events such as Polish dances.
My younger son, Emil, joined the Royal Air Force, graduating from the RAF College, Cranwellin 1983. On leaving the Air Force, he became involved in wind power technology.
Barbara lives in London, as does her son, Darren. Christopher also now lives in the London area, while Emil and his family live in the USA, in San Diego. I visit him, his wife and their two children every few years and they come over to stay with me in the UK. I still see my brother, Piotr, who is now 90, and still lives in Edinburgh. I am now widowed but still live in Wimbledon.
I still attend London meetings for the ‘Poles in India’ when I can. It is fantastic we have continued to meet after all those years.
Written for Hela Moroz by Alicja Swiatek Christofides,
pictured above with Hela in 2013.
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords