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Helena (Woloch) ANTOLAK





When I look back to those distant days, what do I see?


The summer of 1939 was one of the warmest anyone could remember. The sun shone as if it wanted to warm us, to make up for all the years ahead which were to be so difficult. Who could have thought then that thousands of Polish men, women and children would perish in the wilds of Asia; that we would be dispersed all over the cold wastes of distant Siberia? But that is exactly what happened! And my whole world fell from under me like the thin ice on a river.


I had returned home from school for the holidays, to be reunited with my parents, my sister and my brother. Wishing to please me, my father announced that there was to be a grand ball in Radziwillow, that he had been invited, and that I too could go. This was a wonderful surprise for me because it would be my very first ball! The army officers of the region had arranged it. They were leaving to take up positions nearer the German border: “General maneuvers” they called it. It was an occasion to celebrate. And so we prepared ourselves, and set out on the few kilometers to the place in Radziwillow (near Brody).


We had hardly dismounted from the carriage when two men approached us from the ballroom entrance. I knew them: they were elderly friends of my father. Taking me firmly, but gently, by the arms, they led me into the ballroom. Because I was so young and this was my first ball, and because these two gentlemen were elderly, distinguished men (one even had a small beard), I thought that the whole world would fall in upon me.


The hall was beautifully decorated. It seemed as if the whole town was saying good-bye to our Polish officers who were going away to war, a war from which very few would return. I saw various banners posted up everywhere declaring that “We will not give away even a button” and “We are strong, dedicated, ready and calm”, etc., etc.


That evening, everything seemed like out of a fairy tale. Ladies in beautiful evening gowns, and our army officers: so young and handsome. I can still see them all now, dancing like waves to the music. We all had a wonderful time. But the ball had to come to an end. Like most good things, it did not last long. It was summertime, almost at the end of the school holidays. A few days later the war began: Germany invaded Poland.


My father was immediately called up to the army. As he was boarding the troop train to depart, he received a telegram ordering him to return to his civilian work in Radziwillow, because someone had to remain behind and work.


In the first few days of the war, airplanes began bombing the main railway lines. I remember how nine airplanes flew along our section of the line one day. One of them left its formation and began to fly in the direction of our house. All of us began to run to take cover in the nearby woods. But we were noticed, and the plane began to fly after us. Although we were hidden under trees in the wood, the aircraft shot volleys of bullets at us from a machine gun. Each of us pressed ourselves to the side of a large tree afraid to look, thinking that perhaps the rest of us were dead! The airplane flew off into the distance a little and then returned again to make sure it had killed us all. It gave bursts from its machine gun. The bullets ploughed up the earth around us. Finally, it flew off for good. It resembled a black serpent, flying so low over the earth that the ground seemed to tremble beneath it. For a while I was afraid to look around me. Thankfully, by some miracles, none of us had been wounded!


Later, we saw the railway line had been completely destroyed. Trees stood around broken and burned, just like people with amputated limbs, legs pointing to the sky. I could hear explosions. I felt the ground rumbling. It resembled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra! -  wounded civilians, the cries of panic, the people running this way and that. Panic reigned.


An ammunition train in nearby Brody had exploded, and we all immediately let ourselves believe that the German advance had reached that town already -- only ten kilometres away. The roads were blocked with fleeing people. Those who had fled from the West to the eastern borders before the German advance now found that they had nowhere left to run to. For here, the roads ended. I remember one young woman, the wife of an elderly judge, who sat trembling like a leaf while her husband stroked her hair softly and tried to calm her down. He later told my father that he was returning to meet the German advance so that everything would be over for him, once and for all. He expected this war to be a long and terrible one that would be fought from both sides, from the West and from the East.


A platoon of Polish soldiers had taken up position in the wood next to our house. The local civilians were afraid that if the soldiers were discovered the planes would return and level the whole town to the ground. We could already hear the sound of the airplanes flying overhead. This time, thankfully, they did not see us. One of the soldiers in the platoon couldn’t stand the tension any longer and let out a shot from his rifle. He was immediately arrested and disciplined by his officers. They took away his rifle, stripped him of his belt, and told him that he would face a court-marshal. I felt very sorry for him.


The bombing continued for two weeks: the frightened people, roads full of refugees: in a word, bedlam. Until one day, there was silence! We did not hear any noise, no exploding bombs. It was so wonderful! My father set off down the railway line to ask one of his friends who lived there whether he knew anything. When he returned shortly afterwards, he announced to us that the war was over. The Soviet armies had crossed into Eastern Poland.

“So is it true”, my mother asked him, “that there’s no Poland any more?”

My father was unable to answer, for he was caught by a spasm in his throat, and tears which we had never seen in his eyes before that day, began to flow down his cheeks. We all began to cry too. Though pale and frightened, he attempted to cheer us up a little. “At least the bombs won’t be raining down on our heads any more”, he added.


During all this time, my mother could not eat anything; she could only drink. She was the most afraid of all of us, for she had had previous experience of the Soviets. Eighteen years earlier, after the Russio-Polish war, the eastern border of Poland had been drawn by treaty some fifteen kilometers west of Bialotyn (where she lived). The villagers did not wish to remain on the soviet side of the border. So my grandfather, Ludwik Pulkiewicz and others, organized a petition objecting to the treaty, and urging the authorities to push the Polish border a little further eastwards. He was immediately arrested, but managed to escape somehow and make his way into Poland. Meanwhile, his daughter Maria (my mother) secretly continued to hand the petition around for others to sign. The Soviet authorities learned of this. One night, the soldiers came for her. A loud knock was heard, and someone shouted: “Is your middle daughter Maria there?”

The soldiers seemed in a dilemma. They did not know whether to arrest her or not. Perhaps if they didn’t arrest her, her father would return and they would have them both in custody. They argued among themselves until it was dinnertime. Then they left one of the soldiers to watch over their captive, and the rest went off into town to get something to eat. The soldier explained to my mother that he had been left to guard her. She tried to make a joke of it by saying that she must be very important indeed (but he was not really a soldier, but someone from the town whom she knew). When he went outside, my mother seized her shawl, covered her head, and quietly began to run barefoot (and in her nightdress) in the direction of the border. She had an acquaintance in Ostrog, the border town; and there she found work for herself in a hotel and was reunited with her father. So she remained in Poland and could never again return to her family. For this reason, in September 1939, my mother was more frightened than we were.


The roads were still crowded with refugees, their cars loaded with suitcases, all eager to escape the Germans. Now, from the opposite (Soviet) direction, came tanks full of soldiers. The communists were advancing from the East, the Nazis from the West; and the refugees did not know in which direction to flee, west or east. Which way should they turn?


Over the course of the next few days we did not see any soldiers from either army. Slowly, the refugees began to return home. There now began a very dangerous time indeed. As I have already mentioned earlier, we lived in Volhynia, in the east of the country, among many Ukrainians. These were people not kindly disposed towards the Poles (but not all Ukrainians were like this). They called us “Lahhy”. We felt as if we were in the lion’s mouth.


Almost immediately, two young Ukrainians moved permanently into our house without asking, and began to order us about. Our house was the property of the Lyceum of Krzemieniec, where my father was the head of the forestry estates. We felt frightened having such hostile men armed with rifles in our house. It was a difficult time for us. We lived in constant fear. Every creak of the door seemed to foretell some danger. We did not have a single peaceful day or night. Armed Ukrainian gangs had taken over control of the district. They tortured and killed, and none of us knew who would be next. We often heard the sounds of rifles discharging and we felt certain that one of us would be next.


The two young Ukrainians brought some brochures and newspapers with them, and ordered me to read them out loud. I was to read and they would listen. I could hardly bear it; so unpleasant this task was to me. Among many other things, I read that once upon a time there grew a strong tree: this represented the land of Poland. Around the tree grew poisonous grasses: these were the Polish people. The tree had already been destroyed; but the poisonous grasses still had to be torn up by the roots and burned so that no trace of them remained. I had to read such things to them every day. It was a torture for me. They threatened that they would send us to the place where the Polar bears lived, and we would shepherd the bears!


Not long afterwards, one of our permanent Ukrainian workers came to visit us. He began to talk to my mother, and began to praise (or rather imagine) what life will be like for us in the Soviet Paradise. “We will go singing to work, he explained, and return by motor, not on foot. And life at home will be so pleasant. Everyone will have large cupboards full of everything they desire”. I began to think that he had lost his mind! He really believed this propaganda! At that precise moment, my seven-year-old brother rushed into the room. The Ukrainian caught him up in his arms and held him there, asking with a devilish grin on his face: “Tell me who you are now?” strongly accentuating the word “now”. At this, the little boy did not know what to say. Our mother had told him not to talk too much with such people. I froze with fright, looking at my little brother. Nevertheless, he broke his silence and answered: “I am Polish”. The Ukrainian (Mr. Bieroza) answered in a loud voice: “Oh no, you’re not! Now you are a little Bolshevik. Ha ha ha”. And he began to laugh. I looked at the man with disgust. I felt that even worse times awaited us, and I felt consumed by feelings of powerlessness.


One day, none of our employees turned up for work. Instead, they sent a fourteen-year-old boy. The boy announced that all the adult men had gone off to disarm our Polish soldiers returning from the front (and that he would join them later). When they had collected enough rifles, they would begin shooting all the Lahhs (that is, us Poles). And that is what happened. They behaved like common thugs. They began capturing soldiers returning home after the defeat. They would strip them almost naked, take away their clothes and underwear, and let some of them return home like that. After the September defeat, the soldiers returned home bedraggled, penniless. Nevertheless, the Ukrainians would go through their pockets and take away even their last cigarettes. Sometimes they would drag some of them through the streets in their underwear, prick them repeatedly with needles, and drag them through various villages until they collapsed. They did this especially to former policemen.


During this time, before the Soviet army took control of the area, terrible things happened. One Ukrainian family who lived not far away from us near the railway line (they belonged to a certain Religious sect called the Sztundry) advised my father to hide himself in their hay barn. They had heard that he was in imminent danger. While he was hiding in the barn, he overheard a conversation between some prisoners who had escaped from jail. He listened as they told one another that they already had enough rifles, and that now they would go and “deal with” the Polish settlers and Pilsudski’s former legionaries. After that they would go and settle with Woloch (that is, my father). They began to talk excitedly about how they would conduct their killings, until one of their comrades arrived on a bicycle to join them. He told them to put a stop to the killings, at least for the time being. He explained that a Russian captain from the Soviet army had been calling public meetings in several towns telling everyone to wait until the Soviet authorities arrived. Only then would the Ukrainians be able to do what they liked. Otherwise, if they acted now, “every death would be paid for by death”. As a result, the killings became fewer in the following days. It later turned out that this “Russian captain” was in fact a Polish soldier disguised as a Russian commissar. It was not long before this “captain” was arrested and executed. He saved our lives, and lost his own. But so many lives were saved because of his actions. I salute you, dear captain, because maybe I too, owe my life to you!


With the Soviet occupation, a new chapter in our lives began. At first, there was nothing to be bought in the shops of Radziwillow. If, by some miracle, we managed to find something, it was sold for a king’s ransom. The Soviet soldiers immediately snatched almost everything in the shops up.


More than once, Polish students, and other people, slept the night in our house in order to be able to cross over the border into Rumania, and so continue fighting the war. Polish soldiers who had been captured by the Russians were forced to work on the roads in their summer uniforms, even in this, the coldest winter weather. They suffered terrible frostbite and hungers. They were worked hard; and if any one of them happened to suffer frostbite to such an extent that he was unable to perform his work, then he was shot immediately. We civilians begged the Soviet officer in charge to allow us to give them something hot to eat. Surprisingly, he agreed to our request and permitted us to give the prisoners-of-war what he called “wartime rations”. “They can eat once a day,” he said.


All his lasted until the night of the 10th February 1940. On that unforgettable night, when our father just happened to be home, we heard a loud voice waking us from our sleep. “Open up!” It was the Russians: two NKVD officers with pistols, and one elderly Ukrainian who lived locally. Our hearts almost stopped! We thought our last hour had arrived. They put my father up against the wall in his underwear and pointed a pistol at him. When my father was stood up against the wall, I remember I caught a glimpse of his face. It was ashen-grey, as if his entire colour had drained away, and deeply marked with worry. Although I was only a young girl, it seemed to me then that my father had been allowed a glimpse of the terrible future that lay in store for his poor children. The rest of us were ordered to dress warmly and to take enough food to last a few days. Then they made an inventory of the contents of the house: how many rooms, what was in each one. After my father had signed the inventory, they allowed him to dress. The Russians promised that they would return all our possessions to us in the place to which we were being taken.


Remus, our family Alsatian dog, howled mournfully the whole time and I asked one of the Russians to allow me to say good-bye to him. He allowed it, but went with me to guard me. For the previous two or three days, the dog had been sensing that something was to happen.


Then we were led outside, placed onto two horse-sleighs, and driven away. It was the night of the 10th February 1940. No one saw how they took us away from our home by night, and cast us away. The sleighs moved smoothly over the thin white snow. The night was so hushed and peaceful. Only a light sprinkling of snow was falling from the sky, covering up our tracks, rubbing away all traces of us. As we were taken away, I kept looking about me the whole time as if wanting desperately to remember these sights: the places where I had been brought up and spent my childhood, and to which I was destined never to return again. I closed my eyes for a while, and not lifting my eyelids, shivered internally, not knowing where they were taking us, or what they intended to do with us.


At first, we didn’t know what was happening. Having been brought to the railway station at Radziwillow (near Brody) we saw other Polish families already there: all of them frightened and many in tears. They were mostly the families of veteran army settlers. Many, many goods wagons stood waiting, surrounded by a large number of armed Soviet soldiers. Soon, the process of loading us all on board began, a process that lasted until morning. It was a freezing February day, and yet I saw many people sitting in the snow, oblivious to all the dangers of the cold, thinking that it didn’t matter: it was the end of everything anyway.


Almost towards the end of the loading process, we noticed a group of Polish prisoners-of-war being marched (or rather hurried) to work on the railway line. When they saw us they began to shout: “Where are they taking you to, brothers?” And they began to weep, making us all start weeping too, until the soldiers came and ordered them away.


One elderly woman knelt down where the snow was deepest, raised her hands to the skies and prayed to God for revenge. Then she began to vulgarly curse all the Russians. She was immediately surrounded and arrested. Some of our men went over and pleaded with the officers to release her. They said that she had been mentally ill for a long time. The Russians believed them and released her. In truth, she was a very intelligent woman. When the Soviets had arrived to arrest her son, she had volunteered to be taken with him. She explained that she wanted to be like the mother of God and go with her son to Golgotha. She was granted that great privilege: they allowed her to be taken along with her son! This woman’s name was Mrs. Bednarska.


We were loaded into the goods wagons like sardines, one next to another in a standing position, families with children. In the centre of the wagon stood a stove. There was also a small barred window. A hole in the floor served as our toilet, which we concealed with a bedcover for modesty’s sake. The doors were locked and padlocked, and were not opened again for three days. Some of the children soon began to faint for lack of water. The men would beat against the doors with their hands and feet in desperation, but to no avail. We were soundly locked up! But why for so long? Nevertheless, we still had some hope that the longer we stood at the station the more chance there was that someone would get to know about our fate: the world would learn what was happening to us and wouldn’t allow the Russians to take us by force. Oh God, how we hoped and prayed…in vain!


After three days the doors were opened and the soldiers shouted: “Everyone out for a walk! So we went out for ten minutes or so into the fresh air under the glare of pointed rifles, and were then herded back into the wagons again. They padlocked the doors so loudly this time that it sounded like the door of a charnel house had shut behind us. Soldiers with rifles stood by every door. We could hear the noise of people in other wagons. Maybe the Russians would not have time to expel us. Maybe other countries would get news of what was happening and put a stop to this rape. The train buffers shuddered. There was a sound of steam. The engine whistled, and slowly the train began to move: in the direction of the East.


Everyone in the wagon began to shout out, and although the wheels made a loud noise on the rails, the wailing and crying of the people was much louder. The whole goods train was lamenting. A great cry of injustice went out to God: “Out of the depths do we cry to you O Lord!” It was a heart-rending cry: this last moan. The hair on the head can grow white from hearing such a desperate cry. And then there came a song, one that has often imparted spirit to this tortured nation like no other. From inside the sealed wagons there burst a mighty song: the National Anthem: “Poland has not yet passed away while we are still alive”! It burst out of us spontaneously. Totally exhausted, we were standing crowded together like sardines, singing through our tears. The engine whistled again. The melody of our national anthem ran out over the deserted fields, lost itself and disappeared in the emptiness of the open landscape.


At first, I did not know what to think: the wailing, the incessant noise from the wheels of the wagons, the intense darkness, the sound of breathing from people whose faces I had never set eyes on before. I shrugged my shoulders, willing myself to wake up from this nightmare -- because surely it had to be a bad dream! But no! I was awake and this dream was real, overpowering with the weeping voices of so many people packed together.


Day after day, night after night, the train blundered its way along the railway line. Sometimes it would stop at some remote, unnamed station before setting off again. Presently, we were transferred to Russian wagons (i.e., Pullmans), which traveled on the much wider Russian railway gauge.


We were told to fill one pail of water for every wagon (and there were 74 people in our wagon!), and then we were on the move again. The little children were given positions on two ledges (two bunks) and the rest of us had to remain standing, moving from time to time from the window to the stove, and back again, for a change. We crossed the Russian frontier during the night at Szepetowka.


The rest of the journey continued under frightening conditions. The feeling of physical exhaustion overshadowed all other senses. The sorrow caused by our helplessness was unbearable. Why had fate chosen us for this ordeal? With insufficient water, air or rest, everyone in the carriage began to feel unwell. There was a small unbarred window in the Russian Pullman carriages, high up from the floor. From time to time, one of us would let down a container on a string to gather some snow, which we melted over the stove to augment our water rations. But this situation was not allowed to continue for long. The soldiers who traveled with us, one almost to every wagon, strongly forbade us even this luxury. Anyway, there were so many people in the wagon that we would have to be melting snow continually to satisfy everyone’s thirst.


The train rocked from side to side so relentlessly that the children lying on the bunks would fall on top of those of us who were standing. I could never have dreamt that a train was capable of rocking so abruptly. It seemed to have been done deliberately.


When it stopped, occasionally, (usually at a goods station), we were sometimes able to speak to the Russians outside through the window. At other times, when the train was moving slowly, the Russian civilians who saw us seemed to sympathize with us. Those of us who could speak Russian began to shout out of the window to them, giving them the information that we had been taken from such-and-such a place by force and were suffering an injustice. But how could they help us? This was not the first time they had seen such scenes. They merely shook their heads from side to side and pointed to their eyes and ears. They were showing us that they were not supposed to see or hear anything. This was not the first time such things had happened in Russia.


More stations came and went: Kiev, Oriel, and Smolensk. We would look out on this hostile land as we traveled further on and on. No one had a map. Eventually the train came to a definite halt. The soldiers jumped down from their posts, opened the doors and shouted: “Everyone outside for a walk!” Those of us who still had some strength disembarked to take the air, helping down others who were weaker than they were. We tried to move our legs a little, as if checking if they were still functional. They were functional, and we were still alive, but for how much longer? A shout was heard that the breather was over and we were to return immediately to our wagons. Shortly afterwards, we heard another cry. This time, two people from each wagon were to get out. We did not know who was to go, or for what reason. Soon the rumour went round that they were to bring soup and coal to the wagon. The two volunteers were escorted away under rifles and returned presently with the soup and coal. Water and coal were priceless commodities for us. There were no takers for the soup. It was a thin dull color and no one wanted to eat it.


Further and further we traveled eastwards. I asked one of the soldiers where they were taking us. “The train knows where it is going,” he replied.


One night there was a loud cry from our wagon, and we did not know what had happened. Some of the men began to wave their hats out of the window and shout: “A doctor. A doctor!” Voices in the other wagons began to take up the call. Soon the whole train was shouting for a doctor. Our guards, however, out of spite, pretended not to hear. Whenever we lowered a small container out of the window to gather snow for water, they would see it immediately. But when we shouted for a doctor, they did not hear us! After an hour or so, someone calling herself a nurse was allowed into the wagon. A short time later there was a sound of gentle whimpering, as if from a sick bird, and we felt sorry for whomever it was who was complaining of their fate. We learned later that a little boy had been born in our wagon! The mother did not even have a bed to lie on, and there was hardly enough space for her on the floor. So we all had to squeeze together even more tightly. The little boy was given the name Christopher, after the patron saint of travelers.


Several times we passed other trains like ours heading in the same direction. It was very hard to bear, knowing that others had been condemned to the same fate as us, just as many others have in the course of our long history. We would meet these other transported Poles when the train slowed down at a station, for instance. We would shout out to one another: “Where are you from? When did they take you?” When we were being arrested we did not fully understand what was happening. When one saw all the other trains full of forcibly transported people, we felt so powerless. “So many people!” What a terrible thing was happening to us all! And how many others had already died in their hearts! Nevertheless, in spite of this, there were certain individuals among us, strong wonderful individuals, who infected us with their courage. For if a person has even an iota of hope that things will turn out well, then it becomes easier for him to endure.


At last, we felt that we were drawing nearer to our intended destination. The frosts became more severe (it was February 1940). The children who slept by turns on the bunks found that their hair became frozen to the sides of the wagon, and they could not get up in the mornings. We were still traveling ever further. The second week began, and still we did not know where we were. Dark clouds hung gloomily over the forests. The sky became darker with every day that passed, and more frightening. All around us there were only forests and more forests without end. We had been traveling through these forests for three days now without seeing a single soul, a station, a settlement or even a road. And still we traveled on.


After about four weeks, the train came to a halt. We thought that they would shout “Everyone out for a walk” again. But this time there was only silence. Then the doors opened as if by themselves. Our guards had disappeared and we had not even noticed when they had gone. The train had reached the end of the line. Here the railway line ended. We had arrived in the Archangielsk region, Lalsk area (Khrystoforov, 16th station on the line). We wanted to get out, but there was so much snow, that we gave up. It was also so bitterly cold. So we stayed where we were and waited to see what would happen next.


One courageous individual did get out. He saw some people standing on the opposite side of the line. These people began to come out of their huts carrying what looked like bundles of clothes. We understood that this place was our intended destination. A few sleighs arrived, and they loaded us into them in small groups, and took us to our barracks.


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The first group of us was packed into a small barracks building, basically a log cabin standing by the railway line. The next group (of about seventy people) was accommodated in a larger barracks that stood alongside it. The rest of the people were driven three or four miles deeper into the woods.


The barracks house was fairly small, perhaps only 5 metres by 5 metres. In the centre was a stone stove whose permanent inhabitants were large, red cockroaches with white underbellies. Around this stove, we settled down to sleep on the floor, all thirty-seven of us. The walls were constructed of tree trunks, placed one upon the other. The gap between each log was plugged with moss, in which millions of fleas lived and bred. They were like a plague. They crawled out in their thousands, and even flew around. They gave off a very specific flea-like odour. They would bite us mercilessly. It was like living in an ants nest.


The first thing we did was light the stove, because the cold was so intense that trees were cracking open outside. We had brought a few things with us from Poland. Spreading out the clothes we had with us onto the floor, we lay down to sleep, one next to another. At least we had the luxury of being able to lie down. In the railway wagon we had been forced to stand continuously for four weeks.


Early next morning, the men among us set about constructing a set of three-tiered bunks so as to better make use of the small space. Meanwhile, the women melted snow and made something to eat. When we had finally more or less arranged things in the barracks, we were very tired. We crawled across the bunks on our bellies to find a space to sleep. We were packed tight like herrings in a barrel. At least we each had space to ourselves. Covering ourselves with whatever we had - blankets, coats - we fell asleep.


During the night, someone with a torch entered and began shining a light into our eyes, demanding, from each of us in turn, our first and second names. They were checking to see if we were all there, to see that no one had run away. After this checking, we let out a sigh of relief! But it was only short-lived, because soon voices were ordering us to get up and go (immediately) to the railway line as quickly as we could. A train had arrived waiting to be loaded with wood. What else could we do but get up and obey?

“Quickly!” they shouted. Oh, it was so cold and dark outside! The wind wailed unremittingly. We were forced to load newly cut, heavy tree-trunks, which were destined to become railway sleepers, onto the carriages.


When we had finished our work, we were utterly exhausted. Sleepy and sore all over, we returned to out new, communal home only half-alive. We were hungry, cold and tired. After a few hours rest, we heard the familiar cry of Get to work! This time, the railway line needed to be cleared of snow.


The very next day, several of the children in our barracks, died. We carried their lifeless bodies by sleigh a little distance into the forest. The earth was too frozen to be dug, so we just buried them in the soft snow.


After overworking myself that first day, I spent the following days longing for Sunday. The days seemed to drag on doubly long; and Sunday (or “day-off” as it was called) seemed to pass so quickly with the flicker of an eyelid. This lack of proportion between ones longing and the reality seemed to be just one more injustice we had to endure. Yet the days did pass, faster even than I could imagine. I would return each evening from my ten hours of hard labour and collapse on the bunk, falling asleep immediately. The man with the torch would always awaken me in the night, however: every single night without fail. We always had to counted and checked. It seemed that things could get no worse. Not long afterwards, our ten-hour workday was prolonged to twelve hours, with no day off in the week at all! The extra day's work was to be our contribution to the Soviet fatherland!


I would often say to others that a life such as this was unbearable: that no one could survive it. The Russians would always reply in the same way: they would say, “You will get used to it. And if you don’t get used to it, you’ll perish”. And that was exactly how it was! With every day that passed, our numbers became fewer. Many of the elderly died; but the children died in the greatest numbers. We would take them, our dearest friends and acquaintances, into the forest by sleigh and bury them in the snow at night. Some of us pulled the sleigh while others pushed. Someone would hold a paraffin lamp, while the others dug a hole. The wind and the snow wailed unbearably as we sang: Serdeczna Matko opiekunko ludzi. Niech Cie placz sierot do litosci wzbudzi. Wygnancy do Ciebie wolamy. It was a singing mixed with much bitterness and weeping. Every word of the hymn imprinted itself in our minds. Then we would leave our loved ones behind in the forests, leave them there alone. In the next few days, or sometimes even the next day, we would return with the next victims of this Soviet paradise.


One particular evening, a Russian from the nearby settlement of Khrystoforov came to visit out barracks. His name was Baranowskij. He sat down with us and began to tell us of the time when he first arrived here, twelve years earlier. He tried to lift our spirits as much as he could, and gave us good advice. He told us the story of how he, and many others like him, had been taken from their homes and dumped here in the Siberian taiga. From what he told us, we learned that these Russians had had a much worse time of it than we had. When they arrived, there was nothing here at all for them but bare snow. The children and the old folk among them were the first tom die, but the stronger ones managed to build themselves a shelter so as to have some hope of surviving until the spring. A few people did survive until spring: and later, somehow, they learned how to cope. The Russian gentleman promised to return next day. But the camp commandant learned of his visit, and forbade him to come again. The commandant’s name was Tokmakov. His second in command was a certain Voronin. They were heartless individuals.


Everyone over the age of fourteen was required to work. Younger children were sent to a Russian school to be indoctrinated into the Soviet faith. I began by working on the railway line as a railway worker. They formed a few of us into a Polish women’s brigade. At first, all we did was clear the line of snow all day long. Later we were given the job of renewing bolts in the railway line. We would hammer them into place with a giant hammer called a pereszywka. Whatever it was we did, we had to fill out a daily norm, otherwise our ration of bread would be cut. Later we were put to building a new railway line into the forest. It was very heavy work, and it continued every day.


For almost nine months of the year it was as dark as night; for three months we had continuous day without night. Sometimes we would see the Aurora Borealis in the sky! We would come home from work so exhausted that our legs could hardly carry us. We did not have the luxury of rest, because we then had to walk three kilometers to the next settlement and stand in a queue in order to get something to eat. Many times we returned empty-handed because there was no food left for us. Then, we would all lie down on our bunks (onto which it was necessary to crawl on our bellies) and go to sleep hungry, and exhausted. But there were too many impediments to sleep. The fleas crawled over us like ants and bit us. And then there was always the roll call every single night without exception: to make sure that no one had escaped. Escape would have been madness! No one could survive the wastes of the Taiga in all that snow and without any food.


Copyright: Helena Antolak

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