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Helena Walichnowska (nee Wojtas) was born to Jozef and Apolonia in 1930 in in Hancewicze in Eastern Poland, where her father was a forest ranger. In 1939 the Germans invaded Poland from the west on 1 September, and the Russians invaded from the east on 17 September. They divided Poland between them. In the Russian-controlled area, the plan to ethnically-cleanse the area soon took effect with the first of four mass deportations to Siberia that were carried out in 1940 and 1941.

In 1940, Helena, her parents, her sister, and her brothers Waclaw, Kazimierz and Stefan were forcibly taken from their home at gunpoint, by Russian soldiers. They had been given less 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 out 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 hordes 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 kilometers 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. The women and children who followed later, encountered the same difficulties on their journey south.

General Anders was in charge of the army, and he tried hard to get the Russians to provide the food and equipment they had promised. When this became more and more impossible, he negotiated the right to evacuate the army to Persia, where the British would provide what was needed.

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

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.

Part of the family was reunited in Palestine, and for the remainder of the war years, Helena was able to continue her education in Lebanon. After the war, they moved to England.

Shortly after graduation from high school, Helena met Stanislaw and they were married in 1950. In 1956, Helena and Stanislaw along with two young sons Jurek and Andrzej, emigrated to Canada, joining family already in Winnipeg.

It didn't take long for Helena to become a fixture in a vibrant Winnipeg Polish Community. Her beloved Polish Gymnastics Association "Sokol", reaped the benefits of her tireless work and energy for almost 60 years. This included time as President of the Women's Auxiliary, Credit Union secretary and running the Folklorama kitchens


When Helena was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, her first reaction was that she was in pretty good company, with the likes of Muhammad Ali and the Holy Father John Paul II. There was no self pity, just a determination to carry on as close to normal as possible. Most people did not know she was sick until she was hospitalized.

Helena passed away in Winnipeg on February 12, 2017, at the age of 87 years.

Copyright: Walichnowski family

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