Helena (Woloch) ANTOLAK
The worst things we had to endure were the hunger, the cold, and the exhaustion. When you went outside the barracks you found it difficult to breathe. Often the cold was so severe that your eyelids would glue themselves together with frost. Whenever someone shouted to you: Hey! Your cheeks! or Hey! Your nose is completely white! we had to scoop up handfuls of snow and rub them into the frozen part of our body until the color returned.
No one was allowed to arrive late for work, or else he was immediately sent to court. The Russians did not call this crime being late but, “progoly”. One of our number (Pan Rosa) and another Ukrainian was once arrested for being late. Six NKVD officers marched them off as if they were real criminals. For the first progol, the authorities would deduct 25% of our wages for the fatherland. For a second such offense, they deducted 50%. If it happened a fourth time, you were sent straight to the labour camps.
It is laughable to call these wages. We were hardly paid anything at all. We often did not have enough to buy the half-baked bread that was on offer. If we had not had things to sell, or rather barter, (a watch, a skirt, maybe a shirt) then things would have been even worse for us. Conditions were bad enough as they were. In the beginning they did not want to pay us anything i.e., pay us what we were owed; they were only prepared to give us an advance (a few rubles every ten days). This situation lasted for some time. Some of the families among us had not been allowed to take many personal belongings with them from Poland when they were arrested. These people fared the worse. We had to help one another as best we could in order to survive until the next day at least. And when tomorrow came, what then? We placed such great hopes in this tomorrow.
Sometimes when biscuits, or something else, arrived at the cooperative store, the NKVD, the teachers and the doctors (if you can call them doctors) were always allowed in first and the doors closed behind them. They would take what they wanted first, and only after they had finished, would they let us in. What a rush, a squeezing and a pushing would then ensue. It was possible to walk over the shoulders of the crowd!
Each of us workers was given a work card with which we could obtain 700 grams of bread every day (if we had the money to buy the bread, of course). Children and the elderly could obtain 300 grams. The bread was only half-baked in order that it would weigh more on the scales. We could also buy a portion of soup (called stalowoj). The soup was little more than water into which some powdered peas had been added and boiled in a large cauldron. For breakfast it was always oats, almost all of it still in their husks, served on a shallow plate.
My seven-year-old brother never used to want to eat in Poland: he had to be forced to it. In the Soviet paradise, he quickly changed. My poor mother wanted to give my father (as an adult) and me (who was working, and also almost grown-up) a little more of the oats for breakfast. At this, my brother would sit with tears falling into his plate. “Why are you crying?” my mother would ask him.“Because daddy and Hela have more than me”, he replied.
He did not realize that we had to work hard almost all day long i.e., ten hours, and then walk the three kilometres for the soup or the bread.
We were regularly forced to listen to propaganda lectures. Basically, the NKVD officers came and escorted us to these meetings. And what interesting things did we hear there? Always the same things every time: the names of those people who had fulfilled their work norms (because this was a rare occurrence), the names of those who hadn’t; that we had to get used to life here; that we should attend dances; that Citizen Stalin wanted to create a better life for us....... and so on without end.
Among us, the talk was only of hunger, death, and of our terror and helplessness. The cold chilled us, took away our breath, and entered deeply into the marrow of our bones.
When Christmas arrived, we shared out our bread with everyone around. We wished each other a speedy return home, and a speedy reunification with our loved ones. We believed that these wishes, made on this most holy day of the year, had to be granted! Meanwhile, around us, the trees cracked open with the severe frost; the temperature reached 50 degrees below zero, and deep snow covered everything. Snowdrifts formed around our cabins, which the wind had blown there during the storms. The trees stood silently, like house brooms. Soft powdery snow fell into the air from the branches. Snowy streamers and lustreless icicles hung down from them. The wind was always wailing and moaning like a hyena. We all felt united as one, all of us who had been sentenced to that little cabin. We had been brought together by the same fate, united under a single roof and a single sleeping area. We were strangers and loved ones. Whether we understood one another or not, we nevertheless sought support from each another, even if at the same time we also felt like keeping our distance, or even hated the sight of one another. Then, there began to unfold before the eyes of my soul the image of the broad landscape of my home in Poland. Here and there I saw glimpses of woodland hiding a mirrored slab of pond or lake. Behind them were large orchards overladen in spring with thick bunches of apples or cherries. A dome-shaped willow in the middle of the village. A large house covered in red roof tiles, hidden almost completely in the trees. Variegated garlands of woodland stretching to the crests of hills. Everything shone and smiled. Above them all was a blue sky, transparent as glass. This whole picture flowed before my eyes, and then slowly dissolved itself in mist. Oh, how much I longed to see it again just one more time!
Every day, we had to go to work very early. Every day was exactly the same as the one before it. Work, seven days a week; 800 grams of half-baked bread, the cold, useless hands, backs sore from work. Would there ever be an end to all this suffering?
In winter we would dig channels in the snow so that the melting snow would not flood the railway line when spring arrived. These channels were dug very deep and narrow so that from the bottom you could only just catch glimpses of the sky. The snow, which we dug and tossed out, would come falling back onto our heads (because the channels were so deep and narrow). So many times I felt as if I was digging my own grave! I would become all wet from the snow and from my own tears. If anyone stood still for any length of time he would freeze. Mostly, all of us held onto the slender hope that something sometime would change for the better. Physical exhaustion extinguishes all other feelings and emotions. Perhaps it was this physical exhaustion, which saved me from despair. So many times, I would catch myself crying, unable to control myself. It was not the pain that was unbearable, but the feeling of impotence, and my sorrow at our destiny: that Fate had singled us out for this!
I would emerge from these channels in the snow to have an hours break for dinner. Our so-called pagruzczyki (men who loaded the wagons with wood) would light a fire, and we would sit around it and bite into our pieces of bread, if we had any with us). The bread would be frozen stiff, in spite of the fact that we kept then inside our fufajki (padded jackets). We impaled the pieces of bread onto twigs and warmed them over the fire. Then it was back to work again.
All this lasted for two years. But in reality, it flowed into the whole remainder of my life. All my life I have had before my eyes those dejected, frightened, pathetic faces. They have followed me even here, into the present.
Many of my friends - or rather my young colleagues in misfortune - died in Siberia. There was nothing to treat them with: no medicines, not even an aspirin. We would go to a doctor only for what was called a sprawka, a doctor’s note of exemption from work. This was granted only if one had a high temperature. If one was weakened by working (as we were) so that we could hardly walk straight but wandered around as if we were drunk and had to hold one another up, then no exemption was granted.
At night we were almost eaten alive by fleas. Sometimes it was our turn to eat them! Cockroaches (hideous they were: red with white undersides) sometimes fell into the large cooking pots of soup, which we ate. For this soup we had to stand in line for several hours in freezing weather!
In front of our settlement stood a little wooden box. It looked like one of those booths, which soldiers on guard duty use. The most frequent occupant of this box was a brave, elderly woman called Pani Bednarska, the very same woman who had volunteered to follow her son into Siberia. She was always saying something or other against the Soviet authorities; and as a punishment she was regularly locked up in this cold, damp, narrow box. We would often see her thrusting her clenched fists out at them from the window. She would be released after a few hours. A few days later it would happen again, and she would find herself back in the box once more.
I worked as a laborer on the railway line (zelaznodaroznik), doing everything that the men did. I would hammer nails with a great hammer; remove heavy old rivets; tighten screws, renew portions of the railway line. I carried a so-called demokrat (this was a heavy instrument that was placed under the line and jacked-up so that the tracks could be raised. We would spread some sand under some of the sleepers, and so on. Having worked my hours, I would go home, only to return to work again a few hours later.
In summer I worked on the pereszynki: that is, measuring the width of the track. Using a kind of claw, which held the rails tightly, we would measure their width. Sometimes it was necessary to move one of them further or nearer to each other. One of the people who worked alongside me was a Russian called Paszka. We were allowed to sit down and rest now and again for a few minutes. This was called ‘zakurka’. Paszka would make a kind of smoking pipe out of a rolled-up sheet of newspaper; and many times he would share it with me, saying: “Yelena, would you like a smoke”? Of course I would try it. It was his own tobacco, but he was very hospitable and he would laugh loudly at me. His wife also worked in our brigade. She had a strange habit of saying the word liszak after almost every word. They were both desperately poor. They lived in an enormous communal barracks along with many other people. They called these places ‘obszczezycie’. They ate the stalowoj (soup), never cooking anything themselves because they never had anything to cook. That’s how they lived. In the Taiga, they knew no other life.
My father, however, was a pagrozczyk: he loaded logs onto railway wagons. He would work all day. He would load up one train and another would immediately arrive to be loaded. The logs were newly felled, raw, and very heavy. His shoulders became so badly bruised that the flesh would hang from his bones. Finally they had to dismiss him from this work and attached him instead to my brigade. But he could not fulfill his norm even here. So they gave him the job of looking after the horses. All night he would have to watch over these horses. In winter he drove with the bread from the bakery to the shop. If anyone had horses in his care, he answered for them with his life. If any injury happened to a horse, even if was just an accident, the man in charge of it was immediately taken to court: because the horse was the property of the state. On the other hand, if a man was killed at work, no one even investigated the circumstances of the death. My father was a little happier working with the horses than before.
After a while, we had bartered away almost all the things we had brought with us, for food or money. Now we were working twelve hours a day instead of nine; and not six, but seven days a week: all day, every day. The extra day we worked was supposed to be for the fatherland. People were dying like flies. There wasn’t even any milk to be had.
Most of the young men, as well as the elderly ones, soon began to suffer from what we called chicken blindness (they became blind as soon as daylight faded in the evenings). One day, a stray dog wandered into our settlement. We looked at it as if it was the seventh wonder of the world, because it was the first dog we had ever seen here. Immediately, the men threw themselves upon it like lions. I thought they wanted to stroke the dog. I dont know how to describe what happened next. They caught the dog, killed it and made a drum out of its skin. The meat was distributed to those who suffered from the chicken blindness. The liver, they ate raw. It cured them! My mother asked one of them, Pan Zeman, what the meat was like. “I dont know”, he answered, “I swallowed it the way a cat swallows a mouse”.
There were certain individuals among us who, realizing that we were almost at breaking point, in danger of falling into despair, immediately sprang into action. We all needed something to lift our spirits, to give us some life. As a result, many of them suddenly became fortunetellers: they read our futures by various means. Strange to tell, everyone’s reading came out the same: in a short time we were to leave this place by sea! How could we doubt it? There had to be something to it, we told ourselves, when everyone was getting the same outcome. We also held seances: and the results were very similar. There was some kind of change imminent. We began to receive letters from home in which a mysterious Auntie Fran and Auntie Engie (whom no-one had ever heard of) who had at last moved themselves! These statements were followed in the letters by lines of dots. In these dots we placed all of our hopes! Those of us who had almost been at breaking point began to feel better. I also had a Tartar girlfriend from the next settlement. When I visited her secretly, she would also communicate to me in sign language things, which I understood perfectly.
The boss on the railway line was called Nikolaj Nikolajevicz. Well advanced in years, he could remember Russia in better times. Often, when we were working together, we would talk freely (because I was the only one in my brigade who spoke Russian fluently). I would often complain to him that in Russia there wasn’t this and there wasn’t that. He would always reply in the same way, smiling: “Yelena Aleksandrovna” (thats how I was known) “we too once had these things in Russia.”
Every single day we worked ourselves to the edge of starvation. The wind wailed mercilessly. At night we were eaten alive by bedbugs. It seemed as if every day was exactly the same as the one before. Yet every day was a new struggle with death to survive at least until tomorrow. Because tomorrow something might change. We had hope. The Russians, on the other hand, had lost all hope of anything better in the future. Over the years they had come to terms with their fate. But to live like that - living only to survive - is no life at all. The secret of human life is not just to live, but also to have something to live for.
There were also Russian soldiers among us who had fought in Finland. Many of them had caught frostbite there, and had had to have their toes amputated. For some transgression of the law, they had been sent to Siberia as a punishment. The deep snows and the terrible cold meant that they found it difficult to walk. They could not keep their balance and kept falling over. It was hard for them to get around. We were sorry for them, thinking what they had been through. They suffered physically and psychologically; and they had no one to complain to. They did not trust their own people; and they regarded us Poles as their enemies. They had fought for their country, had lost their health for their Motherland: and this was how they had been rewarded.
Our dziesiatnik (work-leader) on the railway line was a poor, goodhearted, native Siberian called Czaszczyn. He had been born in Siberia. I called him my commander, and he loved to be called by this name. His wife had a two-year old child whose bones were so badly deformed, that it could not sit up properly. The poor child would just lie in bed without moving, pale and malnourished. Indeed, we hardly saw any children at all in Siberia. After a time, the little child died, and the wife of my commander came to visit us at night, frightened lest the NKVD spotted her. I remember her whispering something to my mother. I later learned that she had come to beg us for some holy water to sprinkle over the coffin. Because her child had died without being baptized. The child’s poor Russian mother was asking us secretly to help her child after it was dead, because she had been unable to help it in life.
One day, we were replacing portions of the track and were moving the rails to the left and to the right with our crowbars. Our commander began to shout out: “One, two, lift it through, and we have it too. One two give it here “etc. I found this funny at first. But after a while I became sick of it, of hearing it over and over again. So I began to impersonate his voice. Everyone laughed. They loved my impersonation so much that alas, to the end of my stay in Siberia, they made me be the one to shout out: “One two lift it through....”
Various superiors and foremen would visit us on the trains that came for the wood. Sometimes they would even walk the eighteen versts from the station at Sosolowka. They were eager to talk to us Poles working on the railway line. Our commander always wanted to introduce me to them in the best possible light. They would tell him not to trust me because I was a Polish woman. They said they knew of incidents when Russians had fallen in love with Polish women, (and believed that they were loved in return). They had ended with a knife in the back!
Now and again, in the summertime, we would see a sailor walking along the railway line. He would walk the twenty kilometers or so from Susolowka station in his white sailor's hat. He was probably visiting some family members in Khrystoforow. He liked talking to us Poles! He came many times. He was also very handsome! He would even visit us in our barracks. We would often wonder why he was allowed to visit us, and everyone else was forbidden. So sometimes, the thought would cross our mind that perhaps he had been sent to us on purpose by the authorities. We enjoyed his company nevertheless. One time he came and said: “Yelena Aleksandrovna! In a very short time you will all be leaving here, you know”.
“Where to”?, I asked him. “Home, to Poland”? “No. Not home immediately to Poland”, he answered. “But one day, when you return, I’ll come and visit you there. You wouldn’t throw me out if I did that, would you?” The sailor departed, and shortly afterwards, we gained our freedom. The sailor's name was Lonia. That’s all I know about him. To this day I still wonder who this Lonia was. I remember him with fondness.
All of us bore our fate as well as we could. One of us, however, (Pan Langner), was forever complaining. “My good lady”, he would say, “a man can't live like this when he’s starving, when he’s sleepy.... “and so on and so forth it was always the same: “My good lady”.... It was even worse when we celebrated some religious feast day like Christmas or Easter. Then he would tell us how the feast was celebrated in his house at home; how much there was to eat, and what he ate, how each dish was prepared, all in the minutest detail. He would describe one course after another, and how each course tasted. He had a phrase he used often at these times: it had eighteen flavours. Each of us, in turn, would then describe other delicious dishes we had tasted. We spent our time in this way. For a short while we were transported away from our miserable existences and traveled away home. All of us wished that we could return back home as quickly as we could!
Whenever we wanted to say prayers together, at the May festival or whenever, the camp commandant always got to know of it immediately. He would shout at us in the most vulgar fashion and threaten to throw us into prison. I remember when my seven-year-old brother once gathered together a group of his little friends, made themselves a red-and-white flag from some rags, and went marching along the railway line: playing like little boys do. Voronin, our military policeman, came rushing out immediately, chasing the frightened boys away. My father was summoned to the komendatura and told that if anything like that happened again he would deal with the children in a wholly different way.
Soon, we were sick of everything. By some miracle, news reached us that the Germans had declared war on Russia. This news raised our spirits considerably. Suddenly it seemed to us that even the dog had not died in vain: because the sick among us had been able to eat his meat and feel better; while we younger, healthier ones had had a drum made from its hide (which Pan Rosa drummed upon every day). Up until this time, the Soviets had continually tried to persuade us to organize diversions for ourselves: to begin to accept life in the Soviet Union. We never took their advice. Now, when we knew well that the Russians had problems with Germany, we began to arrange dances and pretended to enjoy ourselves just to spite them. When the commandant asked us what all this meant, we would explain to him that suddenly everything made sense to us, and that we were beginning to get used to life in the Soviet Paradise. If a person possesses even the smallest crumb of hope, he is able to find enormous energy to survive.
A short time afterwards I fell ill with pleurisy. We had nothing to treat it with. Through my acquaintance with a young doctor, I was sent to hospital in a nearby Russian settlement. A few months earlier she had bought a nightdress from me, which she used as an evening gown. Through her I was given access to the hospital. The lady doctor told me that there were no medicines to be had in the hospital, but that once a week I would at least receive a soup made with milk. This meant a lot! They treated my high temperature with quinine, but from where they obtained this quinine I have no idea. My kind doctor could not keep me there for very long, however. I was soon dismissed from the hospital and told to report once a week for an examination. Every day I began to feel worse. I had difficulty walking and could not sleep at all. I was suffocating. I could not breathe lying down, only in a sitting position....
One woman who lived in our barracks had banki (cupping instruments). After she came back from working every evening, she would position the banki on my chest. Only then, when I felt the little cups clawing at my flesh, was I able to breathe easier and feel better. Next day, and the day after, I would wait on my neighbour to come home tired after work to attend to me. She would see to me immediately, without complaining in the slightest.
All this lasted several weeks. When I sat ill in the barracks, I would always have before my eyes all those I had known, those young girls fresh as flowers, who had died here in Siberia and who could have still been living: those whom we had driven into the forest on sleighs and buried in the snow by night. The wind blew terribly. The dark and the snow of the endless Taiga. All we had was one lantern. Several of us had wanted to sing: Dear Holy Mother, protector of peoples, let the weeping of orphaned exiles wake you to mercy. We sang out the song, but the wind blew away our words. Once again we felt like lost orphans.
Soon there was no remedy for my illness. It had become worse. Pani Bednarska, the old woman who had volunteered to go to Russia with her son, also fell ill. She had a daughter in Warsaw who was a doctor. This daughter tried everything she could to aid her mother. She crossed from the German into the Russian sector of Poland, and by some miracle, managed to get hold of a Russian passport and all the necessary papers allowing her to work as a doctor wherever she wished in Russia. She immediately bought a ticket to Archangielsk, got into a train, and arrived at the door of our camp to treat her mother! It was a wonderful thing to do; but alas, she arrived too late. Her mother had died seven days earlier and was already buried. Poor Dr Wanda had gone through all the bureaucratic procedures to get here, and had not been able to see her mother! She wrote on her mother's grave: I am longing, Lord, for my own country.
Dr Wanda had managed to bring some medicines with her, and began to treat everyone in the camp. Soviet women also came to her. She helped everyone she could. She even cured me! The NKVD was unhappy with this state of affairs, however. They confiscated her passport. She was condemned to work in the camp on the same terms as us. She lost her freedom! She too, had to do hard physical labour. She was a newcomer, however, and still had some strength and psychological resistance; and somehow she survived. Because some of us did not even feel angry after a while. Anger is bad. But sometimes it has the function of giving one some strength. When one loses hope in what one has been waiting for, longing for with ones whole soul, and if that hope finally betrays us, then I think that hatred still gives us a little something to live for. People who have no hope, or even hatred, no longer respond to anything and they collapse into a vacuum.
Summer arrived full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, cockroaches and hunger. What was worse was that now there was no night. We had become so sick of winter; but summer was also hard because there was no darkness. In our barracks there was hardly room to move, it was suffocating; we were unable to sleep because the bedbugs ate us alive. Some people did not sleep for weeks at a time. They were forced to walk about, their heads wrapped in handkerchiefs, waving tree branches about in the air to scare off the mosquitoes. Going to work without having slept was totally exhausting.
Until one day we felt something new in the air. The commandant came, as usual, to chase us to the political meeting. We always went to these meetings against our will. On this particular evening, however, we walked the 3 km to the venue happily for some reason. When we entered the hall, we saw that the commissars had friendly expressions on their faces! This was very strange! They all stood up and informed us that....... we were free! They stretched out their hands to congratulate us!
We were struck dumb for a time. But not for long. Suddenly we all began to embrace one another, and to cry with joy! Someone started to sing the Polish National anthem (Poland has not disappeared while we are still living...). Every one of us, with one voice, joined in, sobbing the whole time. What happened next in that hall would be impossible to describe. In short, we could not get it into our half-sick minds that what we were hearing was the truth. For almost two years we had had it drummed into our heads that they (the Russians) had liberated us; that our Polish rule had ended for good. They had called us leeches living off the working class, that if we didnt perish here we would grow used to this life in the Soviet Paradise. As the night began to draw to a close, we were still walking around as if intoxicated, unable to believe the news. Perhaps it was a trick, we thought.
Next day we were issued with documents (udostwierenja), which permitted us to travel anywhere we wished in Russia, with the exception of Moscow. The local authorities tried to persuade us to stay and continue to work in Siberia. They had been paying us a little more money lately. But we wanted to get away from there with all of our might. Where to? We had no earthly idea. It was not easy to travel anywhere without a worker’s permit that would have allowed us to get bread or something to eat. People who had no money were unable to leave. Some families were unfortunate in this respect. We were paid everything that was owed to us, and we set off on the third day after our release. Doctor Wanda and her brother left the day before us.
The railway station had been built only for goods trains hauling timber. No one had ever seen a passenger train on this line. So we embarked on one of those primitive wagons, or rather platforms, sat down beside the timber, and waited. We waited all night, but no engine arrived to move the wood. In the morning, to our relief, an engine finally did arrive to take the wagons and us with them. We were moving!
We were so happy! Not for long, unfortunately. The locomotive took us only two or three kilometres up the line, and then stopped in the middle of the forest. We were freezing. The locomotive unhinged itself from our wagon. The staff on the engine got out and said to us: “You have to all get off! You can't travel any further. This is a goods train and passengers are not allowed to travel on it. If you don’t get off these wagons you will be put up against a wall and shot, because this is wartime; and in times like these they shoot you for what you are doing”. The locomotive unfastened itself from us and set off without us to the station at Sosolowka, about 18 Russian miles away.
People had been traveling on these goods wagons to court and back for twenty years or more. Even big fish from Moscow or the NKVD traveled this way. Yet these railway workers had decided that we couldn’t travel! We were frightened, but we didn’t care any more. We had no intention of returning to our barracks. Consulting together, we decided that if we were to be shot, then so be it; but we were staying where we were in the wagons. We waited in the quiet of the forest to see what happened next.
Not far away from us stood a railway box in which Lizka, a friend of mine, worked. Lizka was a Russian signal-woman. There was a telephone in her box. (We had often used this railway box during our lunch breaks when we were working nearby. There was a stove inside on which we would often place our frozen pieces of bread to thaw them out). I went over to Lizka and asked her whether she knew why the locomotive had abandoned us. She didn’t know. After about an hour, the telephone rang to tell Lizka that a locomotive had set out from Sosolowka to pick up our wagons with the timber. I quickly ran back to tell my parents and my comrades-in-misfortune that a train was on its way. I said my good-byes to Lizka. Then we all sat down on the wagon and waited to see what would transpire.
The locomotive arrived, attached itself to the wagons, and let out a shrill whistle. We were moving again! We were frightened, however, that there would be unpleasantness when we reached the railway station. When we arrived, before the train had even stopped moving, we saw that the crew of our locomotive was different; and we saw the members of the original crew were being escorted away under arrest by the authorities.
We bought tickets to Kotlas. I can even remember how much they cost -- 120 rubles. Boarding the passenger train, we set off. I looked around me at those places for the last time, and life began to flow into me once more.