Helena (Woloch) ANTOLAK
THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
When we disembarked from the train at Kotlas, we were confronted by a large number of Polish families already waiting there, from the other camps. We held out our arms to one another and greeted each other as fellow countrymen. We began to embrace, weeping with the joy that we had been counted among the chosen ones.
Representatives from our group went to speak to the town elders: to tell them our story. By some miracle, they responded by arranging a train for us, free, at no cost! This railway station, we learned, was a “gathering point” (as they called it) for refugees. A very large number had gathered there. Many of them were Soviet citizens: refugees from Stalingrad.
Every so often, the train would stop at a station, and we would run out to get some hot water to drink before the train started again.
We were traveling with many people who had been released from the penal colonies. These were individuals traveling alone, dressed only in a single prison shirt. They had rags wrapped around their feet instead of shoes. Each of them held a “kotelok” firmly in his hands. This was just an empty tin can with a piece of wire attached to the top so that it resembled a little pail. It was their only possession. People like us, with families from the labor camps, had at least a few bundles of clothes or blankets with which to cover ourselves. These ex-prisoners had nothing: no money, not even a single blanket. All they had was lice! The weather was cold and these poor souls did not have a single article of clothing with which to cover themselves at night.
Once, the train stopped for a longer time than usual, (it was in Chelyabinsk, I remember); so we took some of our possessions to the marketplace to see if we could exchange them for food. The Russians who lived on collective farms had no decent clothes to wear, so we gave them some of our clothing in exchange for vegetables. Only rarely was it possible to buy anything for money. So you can imagine how our poor, almost-naked fellow-countrymen from the penal colonies fared! We tried to help them as much as we could.
We had often noticed that if someone managed to run into the station dining rooms early, before the train had even stopped moving, they could sometimes buy something to eat at the window. I tried this on one occasion, But by the time I got there, and took my place in the queue with the hope of buying something (anything, a piece of bread even) the window closed and they said: “Nietu!” There was nothing left. So I began to run back empty-handed. There were trains setting off, one after another, in every direction. My train had been standing at platform 5. Although all the trains were traveling slowly, it was still very dangerous to run under the wagons; but somehow I managed to do it. When I returned to the platform, however, there was no sign of my train anywhere! I went around asking everyone; but no one knew anything. In fact they would not even tell me in which direction the train had gone, because it was forbidden. In wartime such information was secret! My train had been heading south, roughly, so I jumped onto the first moving train headed in that direction, and traveled onwards, my heart beating fast. Maybe I would catch up with them, I thought! But, My God, the train could be going anywhere. I could not think of anything else to do.
I traveled on until we came to an unnamed station, where I jumped out. I looked around, but there was no sign of our train there either. Again, no one would give me any information. It was then that I began to become afraid. I wondered what I would do, all alone, in this foreign, hostile country. Just then, I saw a column of Soviet soldiers marching by. Each of them was carrying loaves of bread in his arms. I must have been staring desperately at those loaves of bread because one of the soldiers (the last one in the column) - I don’t know why - shouted out to me: “Catch!” and threw me a loaf of fresh bread. Then he marched away out of the station, without even looking back behind him. I don’t remember if I even thanked him, but my spirits rose tremendously.
I approached the railway line and waited for a miracle! Maybe some goods train would arrive, I thought, so I could jump onto it and travel onwards in my search for my family. I stood there waiting and listening for a very long time. At length I heard something approaching: a passenger train. I thought to myself: good enough! Jumping onboard, I began looking for an empty space in which to stand, still holding my precious loaf of bread tightly in my hands. The passengers in the train all looked like beggars. I began to listen to them and realized that they were talking in Polish!! I went into the adjoining carriage and finally understood that…Good God this was my train! My train had caught up with me!
I was so happy to have found my family, who were all in tears. They had presumed that I was lost, like so many others, never found again in that country. My parents were happy to see me; but what was just as important was that now we had a loaf of bread to keep us alive for a little while longer. So we all felt a little lighter at heart as we traveled on southward, happy to be getting ever further from the cold place of our exile.
There was an outbreak of lice on the train. We were bitten so badly that we could hardly bear it. There was nowhere to wash, and nothing to wash with. The washrooms were blocked up so badly that everything was spilling out of them down the stairs: dirt, stench and misery.
Sometimes, for several days at a time, we had no food whatsoever. In one place where we stopped, some of the men in our group went to see the town elders. They begged them to give us something to eat, anything. They explained to the officials that that we had just been released from the Siberian camps and the penal colonies. We were starving. Our children were dying every day and we had to throw their dead bodies out onto station platforms whose names we did not even know. They asked the officials to imagine the anguish of a mother who saw her second child dying from malnutrition or some other disease. The person in charge took our papers and soon afterwards returned with some bread for us to share with everyone on the train. This only happened to us once, anywhere.
We were ill, exhausted and felt we could travel no further. At one of the stations, we met the director of a collective farm from Saratov. He was happy to learn that Poles were on the train because he needed help on his farms; all the soviet men had been drafted into the army and there was no one to work the land. He tried to persuade us to spend the winter working for him. When spring arrived, we could continue our journey, he said. We considered his proposition. We really had no other alternative. The leaders of our group did not think it was wise to travel on into Asia right away. They explained that too many refugees would be flooding into the warm countries. Epidemics were likely to break out, which might finish us off. It was better to wait.
So together with several other families, we left the train, were loaded up onto a truck, and driven to the collective farm. We spent that first night in a little shack by the side of the road. The next morning, some girls arrived with oxen to take our group of four families to one settlement, and the other group of four families to another settlement several kilometers further away.
The oxen took us to a village called Merlino-Voskresienka, in the Saratov region near the River Volga. We were put up with some Russian families. We all lived together communally. It was wonderful not to be troubled by lice! The families received us heartily, because it was easier to find kindling for the fire if a large number of people lived together. Finding something to burn in the stove was a real problem in this area. There was no wood to be found anywhere; and the winters were severe, though not as severe as in Kotlas.
We lived in a little house together with a young Soviet girl who operated the combine harvester. She drove the combine harvester in winter and attended to the cows in the summer. She was an orphan and had a younger, ten-year old brother. Her name was Katia, and her brother's name was Miniok. The house comprised just one room, which was reached via an open sewer and a pile of manure, propped up against a small larch tree. In the middle of the room stood a stove. Katia and her brother Miniok slept on top of this stove. We, however, slept on the floor. We spread out some straw, and some spare garments we still had with us, and covered ourselves with our coats (those of us who still had them!)
There was no fuel for the stove, and so we had nothing to cook with. We would have to go out into the fields and wade waist-deep through the snow to look for stalks of wormwood that sometimes emerged here and there from under the snow. We wore ourselves out looking for this wormwood to bring home. It was hardly possible to warm oneself adequately because the stalks burned too quickly. If, by some miracle, we managed to cook a potato on the fire, it left the bitter taste of wormwood in our mouths.
Miniok had only one coat that he wore every single day, and in which he slept. All day every day, he would sit by the stove with my younger sister and brother, telling them stories. Most of all, he liked to tell the story of Dr. Doolittle: how he talked to the animals. He probably only knew this one story. Maybe he had heard it when he was young from his mother. But his mother had been dead for several years.
That winter left its mark on us. The worst thing was that there was nothing to burn in the stove. There was little to eat either. We ate the bran from the wheat, and stole sugar beets from under the snow. Back home in Poland we wouldn’t even feed such things to the pigs.
Every night, sometime after midnight, the Russian women would come and knock on our window. We would be waiting, dressed and ready with ropes and pickaxes. We would go out far into the fields where the giant haystacks stood, the property of the collective farm. The wind moaned cruelly, and the wolves wailed from below in the valley. We would have to go out to the haystacks, bring some of them down, and tie them into bundles, (by touch almost, because we could hardly see them) and hope we weren’t caught. Sometimes we lost our way because the earth and the sky were the same color. If we managed to bring home some hay, then next day we were able to warm ourselves a little by the stove and cook something hot.
Our wages were five pounds of wheat for a whole weeks work. We made a kind of primitive hand mill with a stone. Turning it this way and that, we were able to grind some of the wheat into rough flour. There was too little of it. But what else could we do? Yet all around us, there were thousands and thousands of acres of wheat, sunflowers and sugar beet hidden under the snow. They could have allowed us to take these because they were only rotting anyway. There was no one to harvest them: all the able men had been sent to defend the fatherland. While here, people were starving.
Soon there was a call-up of young women to the army, and Katya received her summons to go and help dig trenches with the soldiers at the front. Her young brother had to remain behind alone while she went off. We looked after him.
There was a kitchen on the solkhoz where they made a soup called “sh-ch-i” for the tractor drivers. One day I went to this kitchen to get some drinking water for the workers picking potatoes in the fields. The cook started up a conversation with me, and among other things, she asked me whether I would like to work with her in the kitchen. Of course, I said yes immediately! We all had to sleep together on the floor of one room near the kitchen: the cook, her husband, their two children and me. The cook and her husband were very kind to me. They shared everything with me, even the floor of the room they slept in. I don’t even remember their names!
Among others on the collective farm, were two young brothers whose family name was Chowanski. Their mother had been sent to prison for the reason that the boys’ grandmother happened to live in America. She would send her grandsons letters written in Polish. The boys were unable to read any Polish. So they brought me a pile of these letters and begged me to read them. Oh how overjoyed they were to hear that their grandmother in America loved them! Even though America was far away, they knew that they had someone who thought about them, the poor orphans.
In winter we, the Poles, were allowed to gather sunflowers from under the snow. There were thousands and thousands of hectares of them. We were allowed to gather as much as we wished. The problem was how to bring them back home. After work, it was usually possible to ask for the use of the oxen (when they were not being used), and take them to transport the many bundles of sunflower plants. But it was dark. The sunflower fields were situated very far away. We were tired; and so were the oxen. Nevertheless, my mother and I used to go out and tie up the sunflowers into large bundles and load them onto a sleigh. We tied the ropes around the bundles so that they wouldn’t fall off, and set off back home. The sky was the same color as the earth: greyish-white. How were we to navigate our way back home? Not surprisingly, we lost our way. It was dark. The wind wailed and blew hail into our faces, pricking us like needles. My mother and I would find ourselves wading through snow up to our waists, hardly able to pull our legs out of the snow. After a while the hail began to come down heavier. The sleigh would fall over onto one side and then the other, and almost overturned completely many times. We traveled on regardless, not knowing where we were going. We blundered onwards, snow falling onto our heads. But what else could we do? We could have been going round in circles for all we knew. I began to jump up like a horse, but would slip and fall into snowdrifts. At one point I was even crawling on all fours. It all ended well, however. We saw a small light in the distance! It was our house. The oxen knew the way, and had led us back to the safety of the village. What a joy! We now had something to burn in the stove. And we had the sunflowers to eat!
Soon after this, my father fell terribly ill and no one knew what was wrong with him. He had a very high temperature and his tongue began to crack open all over. I was worried that it might fall apart altogether! For days he just lay on the ground, and I was worried that if he died there would be no wood to make a coffin for him. A certain elderly doctor came out to examine him, but he explained that he was unable to help because he had no medicines. The best he could do was to send him to a hospital a long way away. There, he would at least have a bed to lie on, and would be given tea with sugar! We agreed.
Two weeks later, two officers arrived at the collective to see us: Polish officers from the army of General Anders. They were dressed in uniforms with the Polish eagles proudly displayed on their fur-lined hats. They said they were taking us to Tatishchevo, into the care of the Polish Army. We had two days to prepare ourselves. You can imagine the joy we felt at seeing Polish soldiers again after such a long time; and to know that the army was reorganizing! I phoned my father in hospital from the solkhoz office and asked him what we should do. He answered that we should definitely go with the officers, and that he would go too. “I don’t want to be left behind”, he added.
We gathered together all our earthly goods, the few miserable rags we possessed, and took the oxcart to the railway station at Ekatirynowka. Once at the station, the officers began to inquire about arranging a wagon for us. The soviet authorities gave them no assistance, however. So we spread out our belongings onto the concrete of the station and waited. Even though it was winter, we had to spend the night there. Next morning the officers busied themselves phoning everywhere they could. Yet the soviets always said there was nothing they could do. So we continued to wait on the platform.
There was nothing to eat. We were not working, and so were not entitled to any bread. Suddenly we saw my father approaching! He was walking as if he was drunk, poor man! The hospital had not wanted to release him, so he had released himself, and walked here in his condition, the twenty Russian versts or so, through the snow. On reaching us, he immediately fell down on the cold concrete ground and slept.
On the third day there was still no news of transport. I went to the kitchens and explained to them how things stood: that we were sitting here in a cold station, we had people who were ill; that surely the Soviet Union cared about its citizens! I begged them for something to eat, or at least something for the young children and the sick. It wasn’t pleasant for them to hear all this, but it proved effective. They came up with over a dozen portions of soup for us. Now, we felt a little better.
On the sixth day of our stay, the officers found a little hut on one of the goods wagons and quickly packed my father, and us with him, onto it. We were on the move at last. We were not sure that we were traveling in the direction of our army in Tatishchev, however. The railway officials did not know that we were aboard the train, because we had boarded secretly. At least we were moving. Every time the train stopped, we would open the doors to see if it was our station, because we did not want to miss it.
After a long time, we stopped at some unnamed station, and saw some soldiers approaching us with blankets! Our Polish soldiers. They had been waiting for us at the station and had been searching every wagon until they found us. They wrapped us all in the warm blankets, sat us on a waiting sleigh, and we set off!
Presently we arrived at the camp: an enormous barracks building with three-tiered bunks filled with civilians. How beautifully we were received! They dressed us from head to foot in new clothes. They fed us. They even had medical personnel on hand: in a word, this was heaven! We were given as much food as we could eat, and a place to sleep. Most important of all, we felt happy to be among our own, Polish soldiers.
After about two weeks there, we were informed that we were leaving Tatishchevo for Asiatic Russia. The army would be traveling with us. They loaded us up, several families at a time, onto some railway carriages and made us comfortable. There was an army kitchen on board that served delicious meals. In a word, they treated us like a mother treats her children.
We were traveling onwards, further and further away from that Hellish place of Siberia. One morning, however, we woke up with surprise to find that we were stationary. The train and the army wagons were nowhere to be seen. We were alone on the railway line. No one had told us anything, and to this day I do not know why our carriage had been disconnected from the train. A Russian railway worker had probably unhinged our wagon by mistake. The army train had left us behind, and we were stuck on a side track!
This was a desperate situation that we now found ourselves in. What could we do? What? Some of the elders of our group found a piece of chalk and used it to write the name of some Russian town on the side of our wagon. It worked! The railway workers read the sign, attached our wagons to another goods engine, and we found to our joy that we were traveling again. But what a difference there was now! This time we had nothing to eat. We could not ask anyone for directions because we were at war. We desperately wanted to reach some Polish army centre. The men in our group intended to enlist in the Polish army. When we reached these centres, however, we found they were invariably full up, and we had to travel further onwards.
The train stopped somewhere on the Russian steppes. There wasn’t even a station there. It was the middle of nowhere. The train stopped, and waited. On both sides of the track stretched barren uninterrupted plains as far as the eye could see. We asked the engine driver if he would be stopping here for long. Oh yes! He answered. About four hours.
Some Mongolian men entered our wagon and asked whether anyone had tea or soap to barter. My mother had a piece of soap she had been holding on to as if it were a precious heirloom. Soap was impossible to obtain anywhere. She exchanged the soap for a few carrots, with which we were immensely pleased. We disembarked from the train, and went off to pick some greenery and a few thick stems of plants that lay around. We lit a fire on the edge of the railway track, and hung our tins on some sticks (which we had in the carriage with us) and boiled the carrots sliced up in some water. As soon as the water started to boil however, the train began to move away quietly without giving any signal. I started to run towards it carrying the tin on the stick with me. People in the wagon stretched out their arms to me, and somehow they managed to pull me into the wagon. Even today I can still remember the taste of those uncooked carrots in the water. It was such a luxury.
We had now been traveling for three months in the wagon. We were hungry, and we were finding that there was no room for us in any of the army centers we found along the way. In one particular place, we stopped for the night and were given a pail of soup for every wagon. That was in Samarkand. The Polish authorities there had learned that we were on the train; and at the behest of a Polish Community Organization, they had stopped the train and were able to give us something to eat. I can still remember the name of the officer-in-charge of the operation. His name was Szymczyk. This was the only place we got something to eat.
We had been traveling a very long time now, and still we were on the move. It seems to me that after this, we didn’t stop anywhere else for four days. For four days we did not have a single thing to eat. Finally, somewhere in Uzbekistan, the train stopped and an Uzbek came on board with a water melon, hoping to exchange it for something. We no longer had anything to trade with. We only had money. We must have looked very miserable and desperate because he agreed to sell us the melon for a ruble! Divided up into five portions, it was the first meal we had had in over five days.
A few days later we arrived in Tashkent, where we learned of a Polish camp that was not yet full. We got off the train at a station called Guzar. When the train left us, we sat down at the station to discuss how we should proceed, terribly exhausted, dirty, and beggarly. We picked a few individuals from our company to go to the camp and ask whether they would receive us into the Polish army.
The refugee camp consisted of a few miserable mud-huts, filled with Polish nationals. There were people lying outside on the streets and under fences as well as indoors. Everywhere we saw dying people, most of them suffering from typhus, cholera and bloody dysentery. These were people who had come directly from Siberia. Here in Uzbekistan they had immediately contracted various diseases from which they were dying like flies. From morning to night, squads of soldiers dug large communal graves, but they could not keep up with the number of corpses to be buried. The dead bodies were thrown one on top of the other without coffins or any kind of wrappings; and they covered them with lime.
There was also an army reception camp nearby which was receiving volunteers into the army. No one here was yet in uniform, however. Children who had been orphaned were sent to the Children’s Home where our Polish children were brought up to be communist citizens. My sister and I were accepted into the junior cadet school. My little brother was handed over to the orphanage.
We lived ten cadets to a tent. Sometimes when it rained, we found ourselves swimming in our hammocks. The worst thing of all was when we had to share something out between the ten of us, because it was difficult to make all the portions exact. We would look with hungry eyes at those who were dividing up the food, and it led to many quarrels. Once a day we would go with our tin cans to get some barley soup. Sometimes an ill person would give us his portion of soup.
My father enlisted in the army in Guzar (Uzbekistan) but one of his fellow soldiers fell ill with scarlet fever and hence his whole tent was quarantined.
Soon, we began to hear rumors that the cadets were to be sent to India. We had only been in the camp for a few weeks when we received the orders to leave! We were to travel with the army volunteers (the pestki). If any one of us fell ill with any disease, or collapsed with exhaustion, her comrades would have to hold her upright on parade so that no one would know that she was ill; otherwise they would leave us behind in Russia!
At long last we arrived at Krasnovodsk, the port on the Caspian Sea, the last place we passed through in the Soviet Union. The whole group of us was packed onto two Soviet ships, and we left the Soviet Paradise behind us forever. A band played the national anthem. We were sailing bound for Persia.
I am unable to describe the scenes that followed because even today, when I think back to that moment, the joy of that event flows through me again! The voyage across the Caspian Sea to Iran lasted for six and a half hours. We docked at the port of Pahlevi.
There, on the very shores of freedom, people among us started to die. Some of them died from sheer euphoria, others from overeating. Everyone knew the dangers, but starving people often have little willpower.
Our whole cadet school was bathed and given new clothes. Some of the younger girls had to have their heads shaved. Every shred of our old clothes was taken from us and burned. Our commandant led us into one of the tents and exclaimed: And now my girls, take a blanket and go and get some bread! She was the only commandant born in France. In the provisions tent, one soldier threw us a can of condensed milk, while another threw oranges. We were given a whole blanket full of very tasty fresh bread. I thought that this was to last us for the whole week, but our instructors assured us that we would receive the same amount of bread again the next day. Try as we might, we could not bring ourselves to believe them. Just as they had promised, however, the next day they gave us more bread, and we ate from the Polish army kitchen on Persian soil. I walked about in a stupor unable to take everything in. It was as if I had seen bread for the first time in my life! Today, I am an old woman and still, for me, bread comes first before anything else!
In this way we fled out of the house of bondage. Persia took us, sickly, beggarly people to itself with all its heart! In Teheran I managed to trace my mother and brother; they were in Camp No. 1. Our father had had to remain behind in the Soviet Union, with the other sick soldiers in Guzar.
* * * * * * * * * *
As I mentioned earlier, my father had signed my sister and me over to the junior cadet school in Guzar, Uzbekistan. Oh God, how fortunate we felt to have left the Soviet paradise!
After a month, we were sent to the first transit camp in Tehran. There were 107 of us cadets and six instructors. The Persian population received us lovingly. We were given a large hall carpeted with Persian rugs, on which we slept all together as a group with our teaching staff. We were so happy to have left the Soviet Union that we seemed to be breathing in the whole of Persia with every breath we took.
The camp compound was situated not far from Tehran. Solely women and children populated it; the men had all been sent to join the Polish forces in Iraq. We lived for almost a year in this camp. After that the authorities decided to send all the civilian population to India. My mother, who was being sent with them, managed to get my younger sister out of the cadet school and my brother out of the orphanage. I remained where I was for the time being. After a month I suddenly changed my mind and begin to make efforts to follow them to India. My father was still with the army in the Soviet Union (Guzar) quarantined and unable to leave because someone in his tent had contracted an infectious disease. So I decided to follow my mother to India, because I was her eldest daughter and she might need me. Things did not go according to plan, however.
My journey to rejoin then was a hurried one. It was through mountainous country by train. Every mountain seemed to have a tunnel going through it. Finally I arrived at Ahvaz on the Persian Gulf, where I discovered that my mother had already left. I heard that there was another ship leaving to sail that very day, and I was packed onto it. I don’t remember much about the journey, or how long it took. Eventually I reached the port of Karachi in India where I was reunited with my mother.
We lived all together in a transit camp situated on a wild plain, not far from an Indian town. At night we would hear the wailings of jackals or hyenas. I was always frightened that a hyena would come into my tent and drag me away by the legs. During the day we saw large lizards resembling crocodiles, which were also frightening when they approached our tents. The food we received was very meager.
After some three weeks, we were driven to the port and packed onto another ship bound for East Africa. The ship was very small and bobbed up and down on the waves like the shell of a nut. I was seasick a lot of the time and just lay on deck unable to eat anything. The only food I was able to keep down was onions, which an elderly Indian member of staff would bring me.
Somehow I survived the voyage and arrived at the port of Dar-Es-salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Once again we were put to sleep one next to the other like sardines in a tin, on the floor of a large hall. The lights were kept on all night long. We received quinine against malaria.
After three weeks, we were all loaded up (ten people to a jeep) and the whole convoy traveled through the burning sun to an Italian convent at Tosamaganga, where we spent the night. Sometime in the middle of the night we were woken by the nuns and led into the chapel. The singing of the choir was so beautiful that I was transported to heaven. I wanted to remain there for ever! But it was wartime. The nuns were not allowed to take any new postulates. So next morning we were off again.
Finally we reached our intended destination of Ifundi. We were given a hut built of mud with a thatched roof. The place was called camp A. There was no glass in the windows. There were only heavy wooden shutters kept open during the day with a pole, and lowered at night. There was no furniture: only our beds, if you could call them that. This was our famous intended destination.
For a very long time we had no news of what had happened to my father. We wrote to the war Office giving all his details, but with no results. Finally I wrote to the religious authorities. I received a reply informing me that my father had died in Kermine, Uzbekistan. He had been buried in a communal pit together with other soldiers. My mother took the news very badly. We had traveled through Hell, and here at the very end of the journey he had not made it. Yet we were lucky that at least some of us had survived. Some families lost several members. I remember one woman in Tehran. She was sitting by a wall in Camp No 1 beating her head against the stone and lamenting to God: why had He taken all her family from her; why had He not taken her too? (It reminded me of the Arab in Slowacki’s poem whose family had died and he was returning without his wife and children). This was the lament of more than one family.
Instructors were assigned to us and we began our studies. We had to make up for lost time. Students who wanted to study in the High school had to travel to another camp called Kitugali. They would return to us only for the holidays. We had a hospital, several doctors, a public school and a small altar where Father Krawczyk celebrated mass. We had a Polish YMCA community Center. We also had a radio to which we listened every day for news of the places where our soldiers were fighting.
One time, we staged a small theatrical performance. It was a sketch that featured Hitler walking about painting fences. One woman with her child passed by the dictator and began to malign him and his work. Some very talented individuals wrote it. The English officer in charge of the camp, as well regional governor with his staff, were present at the performance. Everyone seemed to enjoy the show. The English colonial governor stood up, however, and ordered an immediate end to the performance. Hitler, he said, was a genius, and we had no right to malign him. It was the year 1944. We were not pleased with his behavior.
Life in the camp was very monotonous. The local people would drum and chant every night. Lions would approach our settlement. Sometimes some Tanzanian would knock loudly on the door asking if we wished to buy any kalanga (ground nuts) from him. We learned to talk a little Swahili. Sometimes they would ask us about our country and would be amazed to hear that is was populated solely by white people. So who does all the work? they asked us!
In time we set up a scouting organization, and we had meetings and bonfires etc. I also belonged to this movement and had 150 scouts under my supervision. Very often we would be visited by various delegations, even ministers from London or from the Nairobi consulate. They would inspect our scouts, take photographs etc. Once we were even honored with the presence of father (professor) Wargowski, who enjoyed his visit immensely and sent me a letter from Nairobi thanking me profusely for his visit.
Dr Brzozowska, together with other members of the medical staff, organized a nursing course that I attended. After a time, there was an appeal from the Polish government for nurses to care for the wounded Polish soldiers in Scotland. I answered the call. I expected that after the war, I would eventually return to Poland and, as eldest daughter, I would look after my family. So together with a few other nurses, I left our camp at Ifundi for Britain. We traveled through the jungle by army trucks. A young boy with an artificial leg was traveling with us to Nairobi. Two days into the journey and the truck broke down. As we were pushing the truck in the dark with the help of some local tribesmen, a beautiful limousine driven by an English woman overtook us. We thought that perhaps she would give us some advice or even stop to help us. Instead, she was very angry and shouted: “Why are these Poles always wandering about here and there where theyre not wanted”? And she sped off in a cloud of English pride.
Eventually another truck arrived and came to our aid. We were finally able to reach Arusha, and then Mombassa. We spent only one night in some shack, and in the morning we were quickly packed into a Red Cross ship bound for England. There were 73 of us on the ship, accompanied by a doctor.
While we were on the ship we heard the news of the Warsaw Uprising, and everyone became sad. The captain, a very merry soul, invited us to tea and wanted to cheer us up after hearing the news that the Uprising had failed. We explained to him that none of us were in the mood to enjoy ourselves because people had lost their lives and that there had been some promise that the uprising would succeed. But the captain could not understand why we were so unhappy.
We sailed across the Red Sea, passed through the Suez Canal and arrived at Port Said (Egypt). We were given uniforms, rested for ten days, and then traveled on in a large convoy to Great Britain. On arrival, we showed our documents to the authorities at the port of Liverpool. A representative was waiting there to take us to Scotland. This representative was Lieutenant Stanczyk from the Polish Hospital at Taymouth Castle in Aberfeldy.
I worked one month in this hospital before moving to a convalescent home for Polish war invalids in Forfar. There were many soldiers who had lost their legs and arms and eyes on the Italian front: Monte Cassino, Ankona, etc. It was distressing for us to see so many young men who had sacrificed so much. And for what? Our own allies had betrayed us. So many of our soldiers were lying in graves in the place of English dead. I remember the time George 6th visited our soldiers, praising their bravery, saying that the British would never forget what the Poles had done for them. Shortly afterwards, however, they sold us out at Yalta. Living in this country for so long, we still remember all this. But what can we do?
I managed to bring my mother, sister and brother to Scotland from Africa several years later. My mother died many years later in Scotland. I still live here in Scotland. In Aberfeldy I met a Polish soldier who had lost his leg, and he became my husband (he is no longer alive). I was unable to return home to Poland because my home is now in the Ukraine. My grandfather, Ludwik Pulkiewicz, was murdered in my village of Androszowka, (near Szumsk, Luck) in 1943. I only learned of this after making various searches in 1996.
I could tell much about the many countries through which I traveled and in which I lived: Persia, Africa (Tanzania), India, Pakistan, Egypt…At present I am living here in Scotland, and I am old now. I live with my children and am good for nothing.
During all those years of wandering from camp to camp, one thought above all dominated my mind: to return again to my own country. Our soldiers fought all over the world…surely there must be some justice in the world! But there seems to be none. The war finished and we had to remain in a foreign country, unable to return to our homes. We were left to bitterness and sorrow. Sometimes, talking to my Scottish neighbors the question is asked of me: Why don’t you return home? What can I say in reply? They are unable to understand.
But we remember all of this.
And we must never never forget!
* * * * * * * * * *
Helena Woloch Antolak
Courtesy of Ryszard Antolak, who compiled and translated
from the original Polish text
Copyright: Helena Antolak