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Helena Mazurkiewicz-Łapińska

Helena and Waclaw

Helena was born in 1905 in Lalikance, in Wilno province, Poland. Her father was Waclaw Mazurkiewicz, and her mother was Ewa (nee Bojazuwic) Mazurkiewicz. Her spouse was Waclaw Łapiński, born in 1902 in Wilno, Poland.They had two children:  Malgorzata (b1927) and Zbigniew-Jan (b1931)

Helena was deported in 1940 with her daughter Malgorzata and son Zbigniew-Jan.  The family were forcibly taken from their home at gunpoint, by Russian soldiers. They had been given lss than an hour to pack what they could, without knowing where they were being taken. They took what they could carry and had to leave the rest behind.

They were taken to the railway station and loaded into cattle cars with 50-60 other people. This included infants, toddlers, children, teens, adults, and seniors. Most of the adults and seniors were women. The cattle car had two shelves at either end, where people could sit or sleep – the rest had to make do with the floor. There was a cast iron stove, but they soon ran our of wood to fuel it. There was also a hole in the floor that served as a toilet.

They travelled like this for weeks, and were given some water, stale bread, and watery soup, only a few times. When someone died, their bodies were cast out next to the tracks and left there. Many infants and elders did not survive this journey.

When they reached the work camp in Siberia, they were told that this is where they would eventually die, but in the meantime, they had to work in order to earn their daily ration of bread. Children as young as 13 were set to work in the forests – cutting branches from the trees that had been cut down.

Aside from the extreme cold in winter, and extreme heat in summer, they had to contend with hoards of mosquitoes and black flies, as well as infestations of bed bugs in the barracks. There were no medical facilities in these camps, and diseases ran rampant, leading to a high death toll.

In June 1941, Germany turned on its ally, Russia. Stalin then quickly changed tactics and allied himself with the west so that the allies could help him defeat the Germans. This led to the signing of the Sikorski-Majewski agreement that called for the freeing of Poles imprisoned in POW camps and labour camps in the USSR, and the formation of a Polish Army in the southern USSR.

The news of this ‘amnesty’ did not reach every camp, but where it did become known, the men and boys soon made plans to make their way south to join the army. For most, this meant walking thousands of kilometres and only occasionally getting on a train for part of the journey.  Many did not make it, and those who did were emaciated skeletons by the time they got there.

Prior to their deportation, her husband had been arrested and sent to hard labour in the Kamchatka Peninsula of Far-East Russia. On release, he travelled south and joined the Polish 2nd Corps. He fought at Tobruk and in the Italian Campaign, including Monte Cassino.

General Anders had insisted on taking as many of the civilians that had reached the army as possible. There were 2 mass evacuations to Persia: in March/April 1942, and in September 1942. Then Stalin changed his mind and closed the borders. Those who had not been evacuated were not stuck in the USSR. Helena and her children evacuated to Persia with the Polish Army.

The evacuation took place by ship over the Caspian Sea to Pahlavi in Persia (now Iran). The ships that were used were oil tankers and coal ships, and other ships that were not equipped to handle passengers. They were filthy and lacked even the basic necessities, like water and latrines. The soldiers and civilians filled these ships to capacity for the 1-2 day trip. When there were storms, the situation got even worse – with most of the passengers suffering sea sickness.

The British nurses and doctors in Pahlavi, Persia, could not believe their eyes when they saw the numbers and the conditions of the people coming off the ships, and the fact that so many of them were children.

Facilities had been set up to disinfect everyone. Each person had to remove all their clothing and go through a disinfecting shower, before being given clean clothing on the other side. Everyone had their head shaved, to deal with the infestations of lice. They were then sent to one of the camps that were set up for them in Teheran. The trip to Teheran was a hair-raising one, over narrow, twisty roads in the mountains.

After some time in Teheran, civilians were sent to a number of locations that had been negotiated with the British: in India, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Mexico. Others remained in the Middle East: mostly in Lebanon and Palestine. Helena and her children spent the ewar years in a civilian camp in Lebanon, where Zbigniew-Jan went to High School at Zouk-Mikael in Beirut, and Malgorzata studied to become a nurse.

Waclaw came to Canada in 1946, having signed up for a 2-year work contract in Ontario. Helena and the children joined him in Canada in 1949.

Helena died in 1958 in Canada, Waclaw and Malgorzata died in 1992. Zbigniew-Jan currently lives in British Columbia.

Source and Copyright: Zbigniew-Jan Łapiński & family

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