Herzog Family Chronicle
1866 - 2000
Written in Polish by Franciszek Herzog
Translated by Franciszek Herzog and Ivona (Herzog) Verbeke
War and Siberia – 1939-42
The Second World War started on Friday, September 1, 1939 when Germany attacked
Poland. Tadek remembered it this way:
“On September 1st I told Wacek the news that the war started. He, as part of his duties in “Przysposobienie Wojskowe” the paramilitary youth organization, was busy digging foxholes in which clusters of machine guns were installed as protection against aircraft attacks. A few days the front. Everybody was crying except him. He allowed Wacek to join the army if the situation required. To me he said that I have to stay with mother and Niusiek no matter what and ‘watch them like the pupil of my eye’ (Polish proverb). When I hung on his neck and was kissing his face for the last time, he whispered into my ear ‘Even if you had to go selling newspapers to earn living for them, you must do that. Remember.’ And then, a moment later, hiding wet eyes and emotions on his face from the people that gathered to bid him farewell, , he climbed into waiting car and was gone … for ever. It took us some time to calm down.”
A few days later German bombardments of Lubaczow started. Main objectives were railway station, army barracks and Jewish district. Lt. Col. Kaczala, who came to replace father, ordered removal of all the machine guns because fairing on the planes “would make Germans angry”. During raids we usually hid in the cornfield just behind our house. Mother thought this would be safer than staying in the house, which if hit by a bomb could bury us in the ruins. German planes, after dropping their bombs, would fly at low ceiling strafing with their machine guns people running in panic on streets or open fields. Once Tadek who was sick at that time run out of the house a bit late and was fired upon from the plane. Luckily he managed to reach the cornfield in time and hide.
One day after the bombardment a peasant woman was walking along the road by our house toward the village, crying loudly. Mother wanting to pacify her, asked what tragic thing had happened to her. Sobbing, the woman replied, “My Lady, they bombed a Jewish grocery shop in town. People were looting it, I only managed to get a handful of peppercorns and I spilled them all into the ditch”.
The German offensive was moving swiftly and Polish resistance started to crumble. Lubaczow’s army garrison left their barracks and Wacek also marched into the unknown. It must have been the 14th of September when in the middle of the night an officer with remnants of his company brought a word from our father to leave the town ahead of the approaching Germans.
After leaving Lubaczow, father was transferred to command a battalion in the 154th Reserve Inf. Reg. This was in line with the policy that in the event of war, active duty officers, as more experienced, be as-signed to the reserve units just being mobilized. Officers from the reserve would go to fully established units. Father did not like this procedure, saying, “ In my battalion I knew my officers, I knew their good and bad points and in consequence knew what responsibilities I could entrust them in difficult situations. When you get a bunch of people that do not know each other and within a week how I am supposed to make from them a fighting battalion.?” Father’s regiment and his battalion were shattered, but he and the remnants of his unit fought his way to the besieged Lwow. The Officer that came for us was from father’s battalion.
In a hurry we loaded some belongings on a horse driven cart and with the Company that had about 100 soldiers departed Lubaczow, going eastward. The house was left wide open. Tadek was still ill and had high temperature. With the approach of the day we stopped in a forest. In the afternoon we heard motors of tanks. Patrols were sent out to explore the situation. One of them come back and informed us that along a sandy road three German tanks were slowly moving into the forest. The first plan was to attack them with grenades, but when another patrol come back and informed us that on the edge of the forest what looked like a battalion of German soldiers was stationed, the idea was abandoned. After some time the German tanks withdrew.
With the onset of night again we started moving eastward. However in the morning mother decided that there was no point going any further with the detachment. We stopped in Radruz at the estate of a family known to mother.
Next day on September 17th news came that Russia had attacked Poland from the east. For Poland that meant the end of the war, at least on the Polish territory. A few days later we returned to our house in Lubaczow. To our surprise no looting occurred, but German soldiers who stayed there for a few days drank most of father’s wine. We did not stay in that house very long. Being afraid of the Ukrainian bands that were terrorizing Poles, we moved closer to town, and rented a house opposite army barracks, now occupied by German soldiers.
Another incident from that time sticks in my mind. Being brought up, so to speak, in the army, on occasions I watched German soldiers being drilled in the barracks’ square. I still remembered some German language and tried to strike up a conversation with them. At that time Germans and in particular regular army officers were quite polite. Once an officer gave me some chocolate. I thanked him and with that chocolate in hand ran home to show it to mother. When I told her who gave it to me, she scolded me and said, “How could you take that chocolate from a German, he could have killed your father or another Pole.” I threw that piece of chocolate on the floor and started crying. It took me a long time to calm down.
Toward the end of September Wacek returned home. He was well but tired and a bit wan. He had many stories to tell us, some of them probably a little exaggerated, he was always a good story teller.
In the middle of October the Germans withdrew from Lubaczow to a line on the river San. This was the new border between Germany and Russia agreed upon by Hitler and Stalin, even before the war started. For 24 hours Lubaczow was “free”. Next day at 7:00am Russian tanks started rolling into Lubaczow and behind them marched the Red Army. They looked terrible by comparison to the German or even the Polish army.
At about 8 o’clock that morning a Jewish militiaman, with a red band on his arm, brought an NKWD(state police) officer to our house. The officer turned to mother and asked:
“Are you the wife of the commander of the Polish battalion from Lubaczow?
Where is your husband?“
“Yes. But I do not know where he is,” mother replied, which of course was true.
Now I ask the question, how did the NKWD an hour after entering Lubaczow know who our father was and where we live? And above all, who was that militiaman that brought the NKWD to our house?
Visits of the NKWD, combined with searches, became quite frequent until we moved to the village of Mlodow. Gradually we were selling our furniture, bit by bit, and with the money raised that way we were buying food and paying rent. We had no other income. Mother had an idea that when spring came she would sell the rest of our belongings, buy a cart and two horses and we would try to get to Wilno, which at that time was occupied by Lithuanians. After all, in Wilno were her mother and other members of her family and there we would have better a chance of existence.
It must have been February 1940 that we received the first postcard from father. He was alive. In Lwow he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians and was in the POW camp in Starobielsk, near Charkov in eastern Ukraine. They were allowed to write one postcard per month. The last one was written on April 6th, 1940. I still have all these postcards.
We never managed to start our trip to Wilno. On April 13th, 1940 with thousands of other Polish citizens we were deported to Russia. Our destination was Kazakhstan in Siberia.
They came for us, an NKWD officer, with four soldiers, in the middle of the night. We were allowed to take certain amount of things such as clothing, bed linen, bedspreads, blankets, kitchen utensils, some food and other odds and ends, in reality not more than what we could pack in an hour into a few suitcases and hastily made bundles. Another limiting factor was how much we could carry and how much would fit into a small cart. On the way to the railway station, passing through the town, we saw lights in various houses. It meant that these families were also being deported.
They loaded us into goods carriages specially adopted for long distance transportation of people. Each carriage held about 30 people. Inside were bunk beds made from wooden boards. In the middle stood a metal stove for heating and cooking and on one side, by the wall, there was a hole in the floor serving as a toilet.
I do not remember much of the journey, but a few episodes stuck in my mind. When the train stopped on the last station on the Polish side of the border, many hands stretched out through the iron bars in the windows asking people on the outside for a handful of Polish soil. (When we buried mother in Siberia we put a little of that soil on her coffin). Even our Russian guards did not object to that. And then, a few minutes later, when we were crossing the actual frontier everybody started singing the Polish patriotic song; “We will not abandon Polish Land.” And that song carried from carriage to carriage and everybody was crying.
When we were crossing river Dnieper in Kiev I could see through the window a seemingly unending stretch of water with no banks. It was springtime now, with snow melting, and the river overflowing its banks and low-lying land. Again I saw that bridge and the river when I was in Kiev in 2000 on the way to the cemetery in Charkov (Kharkov).
All the time we were going eastward, we crossed the Ural Mountains and were in Asia. On many stations we were put in the sidings where trains like ours, full of Polish people, would be standing. Then we would try to pass scraps of information between the carriages.
And now back to Tadek’s diary.
“On the thirteen day of our journey we were disembarked on a station
in Alga, near Aktyubinsk in Kazakhstan. From there we were taken,
together with our belongings to various villages. By mistake I was
separated from my family. However, after a few days they sent me
to the correct place. Everybody was very happy, not so much that I
came, but because I also brought, guarded diligently by me, belongings
of a few other families.
“Then began days of frustration, misery and hard work so well known to thousands of other Polish families. The only hope people had, was in God and in France. However, under the onslaught of German army, France collapsed even faster than Poland, The spirit of many people was broken. We, I must admit with pride, were one of very few that never, even for a moment, lost hope. Mother believed in England.”
About 30 Polish families were brought to the village called Lugavoj that encompassed a collective farm or kolkhoz named Czerwonyj Sierp (Red Sickle). Our escort - the NKWD, literally dumped us in the middle of the village checked the list of all present, then left. The curious inhabitants surrounded us. As we found out later most of them were the Ukrainians and Moldavians deported here during the thirties (during the forced collectivization of their homeland) and of course local inhabitants – Kazakhs. There were only two Russian families in the village. As most Poles knew the Russian or Ukrainian language there was no difficulty communicating with the locals. First of all we had to find some accommodation. With another Polish family we rented a small - one-room hut. We lived there for a few months.
Toward the autumn we moved to another house which had two rooms. The owners occupied one of them and the other room was for us. A big stove formed a part of the wall separating the two rooms. The important factor was heating. When the owners had fire in the stove, our room was also heated. Unfortunately, just before winter we had to move out. Some other Polish family offered extra money for the rent and we could not afford that. We found a room in a hut of Kazakh, on the outskirts of the village. That was the harshest period of our existence in Siberia. Again I will go to Tadek’s diary for a description of our life Russia.
“Like everybody else I worked wherever there was any job available, except probably a little more and a little harder. I had to because for a period of time I was, so to say, the only bread- winner in the family. Wacek strained his back carrying sacks with grain and then developed pneumonia. That was the end of his working days for the year. In the winter there were no jobs available at all. During harvest time my “specialty” was delivering water. I had a cart pulled by two oxen. On the cart there were two huge barrels that I had to fill with water from a spring and deliver the load to the workers in the fields. It was hard, very responsible and not a very pleasant job. But it was well paid. I was not very persistent in my work. After two or three weeks of hard work I had to rest a bit, especially as mother was sorry for me and afraid that I might be wasted. I changed jobs frequently depending on what was available. I was planting trees, demolishing old buildings and recovering bricks, made new bricks, helped with harvesting and carted crops to the granary. I even worked for one day in a quarry and that cost me a few days of sickness. There was no monetary remuneration for work. Payment was in a form of farm produces and that was done at the end of the season. In the meantime, as we needed money, we had to sell some of our meager possessions to buy bread, flour, and other things and to pay rent. And so our life went on.
Before start of the winter we rented a room from a Kazakh whose dilapidated house stood on the fringe of the village. Our room had a malfunctioning stove and windows that you could not close tight and through which snow would blew in. The owner lived in the other part of the house so we had to heat the place ourselves and we had very little kiziak, no money to buy some, even if any was obtainable on the market. Kiziak was the main fuel in this part of Siberia. It is cow’s manure mixed with chopped straw, formed into small bricks and dried in the sun. Not too far from our village there was a small coal mine, but no coal was available for people. We were also very short on food. It was the time when to get a bowl of flour or a few potatoes, mother’s fur coat, pillows, eiderdown, watch and everything else of any value and which was not considered as ‘a bare necessity’ to survive the winter, was sold.
It was also the time when I had a foretaste of death from starvation. I felt very weak, slept longer and longer and did not even felt hungry. Luckily I woke up from that “lethargy” that lasted a few days. I started to live again, started to think of the future. I made myself a pair of boots from piece of thick felt, started going to the village for water (there was no well near our house) and other supplies and on the way back pilfer some kiziak or anything else that I could put my hands on.
I remember from that Kazakh’s hut another incident. Mother and Wacek went to the village to see the predsedatel (chairman of the kolkhoz) to get a permit to grind some grain in the communal mill. On the way back they were caught by a buran (blinding snowstorm) and Wacek dragged our half-conscious mother. When I heard his desperate yelling I jumped out of bed and barefooted (Wacek had my boots), ran to Wacek through huge snowdrifts, higher than me, and helped to bring mother indoors. A few days later we found her shoes in the snow half way between our hut and the village.
For Christmas we were still in that miserable place. Oh! How sad that Christmas was! For Christmas Eve we had piece of an oplatek (wafer) that was sent to us from Poland, which we broke and wished each other a better future, a few bitter tears to help us swallow it, some beetroot soup, and one potato pancake each and that’s all. On Christmas Day we were hungry.
But somehow, with God’s Mercy and some good people’s help we left that terrible place where in the morning hoar frost covered the inside walls of our room. Thanks to Mrs. Krauzowa we moved to the hut of a decent Ukrainian widow with three children. Her name was Paraska Olejnik and she was the collective farm’s swineherd keeper. Her hut consisted of one large room divided, as customary, by a big, centrally located, floor to ceiling stove. At least it was warm here and we had somewhere to cook our meals. Somehow, though it cost as a lot for the kwatira z tiopkuj (room with heat), we managed till spring. When spring came we started working again.
In June of 1941 Germany attacked Russia. Amnesty was declared for all Polish people. Together with Wacek we volunteered for the Polish Army, but that did not change our situation a bit. Our second winter in Siberia was approaching. We had no news of our father’s whereabouts, but we had moral and some financial help from uncle Strumillo who came to Russia from London with the Polish Embassy. “
And now a few of my own memories. I did not attend any school in Russia. The reason was, mother did not want me, as she used to say “to soak in communist doctrine and atheism”. Beside I did not have warm clothing and shoes for the winter, and winter in that part of Siberia lasted for about five months. So mother tried to teach me herself, mainly by reading Polish books.
As mentioned before most of the jobs available were seasonal and associated with the collective farm. The only full time jobs such as work with cows, horses, swains, maintenance or in the office were few and not attainable for Polish people.
Pay was calculated in the following way. Every job in the kolkhoz was appraised for a certain amount of units, called trudodien (workdays), which split into 100 sotki (100 sotki = 1 trudodien). “Panimajesz?”which means, “Do you understand? Payments were in produce only. Let’s say that the harvest yielded 10,000 kg of wheat. From tha, kolkhoz had to give to the state 8,000 kg (based on the acreage designated by the state for growing wheat). The remaining 2,000 kg of wheat were divided by the number of trudodiens earned by all workers on the farm. That established the amount of wheat per trudodien. Multiply that by the number of trudodiens earned by individual and that was the amount of wheat he would get. Good and just system! But if the harvest was poor and the collected only 7000 kg of wheat, they still had to give to the state 8000 kg., hence there was nothing left for the people. And so it was with every product: rice, millet, potatoes, vegetables, milk, butter etc.
I remember, in the year of 1941 our family earned over 400 trudodiens (I earned over 30 of them). It was a very good harvest that year and they paid 5 kg of grain per trudodien. Surplus of the grain you could sell for money or exchange for something else. A certain amount of money was needed to buy such things as salt, sugar, paraffin for the lamp, matches etc. Of course if the news came that they were available in the store then a long line would form outside the shop.
My main job was catching prairie dogs. I had a few traps, but mostly caught them with my bare hands. On the steppe there were hundreds if not thousands of holes dug by these animals. Most holes were no longer than 2 ft. When I saw a prairie dog standing on its hind legs and looking around, I would chase it. The animal would try to hide in the nearest hole. I had to put my hand into the hole very quickly and with luck, if the hole was short I would catch the animal by its hind legs. Then, very slowly I would drug the prairie dog out of the hole. As soon as its head appeared I would catch it by the neck, place the neck between index and middle finger and squeeze it tight thus chocking the animal to death. (Today I am squeamish if a have to kill a spider). Then I had to skin the animal and stretch its fur with sticks and let it dry. For the pelt, depending how good it was and how big, I could get in the store up to one ruble. In addition, as prairie dogs were regarded as pests, the kolkhoz would give me 10 sotkas for each tail (evidence that I killed the animal). During the spring and summer of ’41 I caught about 250 prairie dogs.
Another of my chores was collecting kiziak in the steppe, where cows were grazing. Sometimes it took good half day to collect a barrow full of that fuel. Stealing from the collective farm whenever and whatever was possible was regarded as a sport, though a bit risky, because if you were caught the, penalty could be harsh. We did not consider this stealing a sin; after all we were taking what belonged to us, as everything was “a common wealth.”
Mother, not being strong and rather of poor health, worked only occasionally if some light work was available. Wacek, like Tadek took various jobs. Once, with a group of other man had to build 12 small bridges over streams and small ravines in the steppe, so carts could pass over them. Wacek was telling, that they build 11 such bridges, but could not find place to build one more. So they built it over an imaginary stream in the steppe, just to fulfill the plan one hundred percent.
I will describe one more incident that stuck in my mind. It must have been the beginning of the winter of ’41. Wacek was working that day in the kolkhoz and they let him have a pair of oxen and a big cart for the night, to get and some straw from the fields. On occasions we would burn straw in the stove. It did not give much heat, but you could cook a meal. Beside, in the bundle of straw you could find some ears full of grain. From that grain when ground mother could make some cereals or soup.
Well, Tadek decided that he would go for the straw and let Wacek rest. I volunteered to go with him to keep company. We left the village at 9 o’clock in the evening. After journeying about 1 kilometer (oxen travel rather slowly) we heard wolves howling in a distance. It seemed that the howling was getting closer and closer. We had to make a decision whether to return or to carry on. We decided to continue. Eventually the howling stopped. After about two hours we reached the place where the straw was stacked in the field on both sides of the dirt road. In the meantime it started snowing.
We were moving from one pile of straw to another, parted them and from the middle would take dry bundles and with forks loaded them on the cart. Snow started piling by now. We decided it was time to start going home. The road was recognizable only by a slight hollow in the snow. But when we were loading the straw we crisscrossed the road a few times. Now we did not know which way to turn, left or right? We turned left. Luckily it stopped snowing. The whole countryside was covered with a fresh, white blanket of the fluffy stuff which somewhat moderated the darkness of the night. After a time in a distance we saw some buildings, but it was the neighboring village, about 6 km from ours. We turned back. I buried myself in the straw and fell asleep. When I woke up it was already morning and in the distance we saw the familiar buildings of our village. Mother and Wacek were very happy to see us, as well as the full cart of straw. For a few days we had the precious fuel (when our landlady had fire in the stove for cooking we had heat in our room, but generally for our cooking we had to provide our own fuel).
1942 arrived. Polish people in our village, especially the weaker ones, started to die. Deep down inside we were all worried about mother. Unfortunately, she did not survive the winter. She died around midnight on January 17. She was not sick longer than a week. Tadek describes mother’s death so vividly in his letter to uncle Jozek written in 1946:
“One evening, in the first days of January in the year 1942, I couldn’t sleep. We lay as usual ; Mother and Niusiek on the one bed, Wacek an I on the floor , covered in sad memories of quilts, and even sadder (if one refers to the memories, and not the holes) school coats. The lights of the oil lamps had long since been turned off, yet none of us could close his eyes. In the hut, silence reigned, broken only by the strongest gusts of wind beating snow against the frozen windows. The first to speak was Mother. - whispering - for just next to us , behind the fireplace, lay the whole family of our Russian landlord. Each of us felt somehow excited, and betrayed a desire to give utterance to his thoughts. Only Niusiek, huddled into a warm corner of the bed, gave no sign of life. We spoke of everything. First of everyday things. We planned, we dreamed. We knew the worst was behind us. This winter (“How the wind moans”, said Mother every few minutes. She was so afraid of winter), for which we still had enough stored grain, we could surely find Father and go south to the Polish Army. The other day Tadzik and Niusiek had brought a ladder-wagon of straw from the steppe, today we had baked some bread, and, somehow everything seemed extraordinarily bright. Or maybe we tried to speak of “happy and pleasant” things to cheat those unpleasant sensations which wrenched our hearts and constricted our throats. Suddenly Mother said “Do you hear how the night-hawk cries?”
These words, louder now and strange sounding, struck at our hearts, causing them to beat harder Wacek declared that he heard nothing, but he had always been considered the “deaf” one. I listened, and heard no sound save the howling of the wind. How, indeed, could a night-hawk have been found in treeless wilderness? I answered, however, not knowing why, that naturally I heard it, and Wacek after a moment, also confirmed this. But the easy mood did not returned to us. Somehow the talk turned to things “metaphysical”.
Then something rapped at the window. Once, twice, three times. At first we froze, then leapt- up as if in answer to a command which each of us had long subconsciously awaited. I imagined it to be a ghost.
After a moment, however, the rapping began anew, and a human voice was heard trying to call through the frozen window. I had to get up to see who it was and what he wanted. I, because Wacek worked during the day and the night belonged to me - or rather, the winter cloths did, for they were the only ones we owned. And there was also plenty of work at night - bringing straw from the steppe and such.
So I went out and recognized Poles from the nearby hut. They told us that Mr. Bawol, popularly known among us as the “Apostle” had just died. As there were only women in the hut where he lived, they were asking for masculine help in washing and dressing him before he stiffened and in laying him in the “sarcophagus”.
Mr. Bawol was a man of middle age, reminiscent in appearance, and even more in lifestyle, of a monk. As I remember him today, he was a man to shed tears for, for whom compassionate thoughts filled one’s head, somewhat like the character of old Rzecki in Prus’ novel “Lalka”. An incurable romantic, a naïve and impractical child deprived of his toys and order to go forth and work for his daily bread. We liked this Mr. Bawol. We, and all the other Poles who lived in the hamlet. An intellectual, a good conversationalist, he always ate something, played draughts with me, and become “angry” (as if this man could ever be accused of anger), when he lost. And so he lived from day to day, and wherever he turned up he brought cheer and trust in a better tomorrow, for he could translate the saddest news from the paper into “glad” and demonstrated clearly that “everything will turn fine”. During the summer he lived on berries and the “Holy Spirit”, and in the winter he traded his few possessions for grain and flour. We all made stores for him and gave aid in whatever way we could. Even during the blackest winter of 1941, when there were days that one stayed alive simply out of habit, we helped support him from our meager stock of flour.
We had herd nothing of him in the days prior to his death however, as the ferocity of the wind prevented any communication with such a distant hut as that in which he nested this winter. We had known nothing of his illness, so the news of his death had come as a shock.
When I saw his emaciated frame, I understood that a mere cold could have done him in. Of his belongings, all that remained were the few rags on which he slept.
The next evening found me digging a grave for this extraordinary person who, though he was only a lovely picture decorating the walls of our community still made unbidden tears fall for this memory.
A few days after we buried Mr. Bawol, Mother become ill. At first we thought it was only flu which would pass easily, and did not fear for her. Only one thing worried us, Mother lost her appetite. At the time, as it happened, the first packages arrived from the Red Cross and we were able to offer her things which she might be dreaming of in her delirium.
Physically Mother was not worn out. If we had been able to get medical help we should certainly have saved her. True, the food was not too good, or abundant, but Mother did not physically worked hard. It is only today, however, that I understand her “lack of appetite” when we would return from work and the four of us would sit down to a meager supper. Only today do I understand the tears which often filled her eyes (though she strove valiantly to hide them) when to our unthinking appeals for more, as “work takes it all out of us”, she would have to answer that there was no more.
A few days into her illness, we began to realize that things were going badly. At moments, Mother memory would lapse. She would forget where she was, drift into delirium… Then there would be times of apparent well being (we assumed her temperature must have gone down, but we had no thermometer) and Mother would return to the living. She would try to eat, to converse. Once I remember, we were reading aloud from the Russian newspaper and happened upon a reference to the fact that India had agreed to accept 250 Polish orphans.
“You see boys”, said Mother, “when I die, Tadzik and Niusiek can go to India and Wacek will join the Polish Army”. We felt most awkward, knowing she was serious. We tried to dissuade her, as one does in these situations but I supposed that by then Mother had found the courage to look truth in the eye.
After this, things grew steadily worse. Wacek strove to have the doctor sent, knowing it was futile as he resided some 28 km. away over the roads banked with high snow - and had nothing to ride on. Wait. The answer always came. Wait. In February the doctor is due to make the rounds of your area - then he will see what ails your mother.
To wait? Wait with what? With death?
The death came ever closer to possessing Mother. We gathered what we could. Some medicines and prayers - ardent even into tears - were on our side… but this was all we had at our disposal in the battle against death.
Mother recognized us seldom now. Her mind wandered back to Wilno, to the days of her youth. From what we could understand of her delirious mutterings, she spoke with her great-grandparents. We could only look on, bewildered.
After this, Mother completely lost consciousness, only starting convulsively when some attack of the heart seized her. Then we would run for Valerian drops which we had been able to obtain from some “good people”.
Sometimes, we had visitors - neighboring Poles. Each helped in his own way. Each gravely nodded, pondered deeply, gave advice, and left.
On the evening of January 17th 1942 we lay, as usual, on the floor and Niusiek, as usual, lay next to Mother on the bed - asleep. We kept watch by the light of a small oil lamp made from a bottle with a piece of wick, which Mother called “Cinderella”. We lay, half asleep, half watchful. Every rustle woke us. I remember holding my breath to ascertain better whether Mother was still breathing. We feared that she would leave us, though we never spoke of it.
Suddenly Mother moved, and let out a kind of moan or whimper. We rushed to her side, immediately pressing a spoonful of water with Valerian to her lips. We clumsy, dim boys found in those moments the most tender phrases springing from us unashamed. We knew or rather felt that a great moment had arrived. Our state of nervous tension, intensified through so many sleepless nights came to a peak upon hearing the liquid we poured down Mother’s throat, flow down as if to an empty well - to the bottom. Her lips never closed. We understood. Mother lived no more. Yet our minds couldn’t fathom what we were seeing, and in our hearts there was no room for the feeling.
I grabbed the night lamp and brought it closer. On Mother’s forehead, white as alabaster, sweat shone like a light frost. I cried, “No - it can’t be!” I put my ear to her breast and heard - clear and loud - the beating of a heart; boom-boom-boom! I felt that the wave of joy which washed over me, a hundred times greater than the fear and uncertainty which had previously held me in its grip, would tear me apart. I had often in the past laid my ear against her chest to hear the faint beating, like the fluttering of caged bird, of her heart. All these thoughts crossed my mind like lightning, but it was my own heart which I heard. Then I had no more illusions.
Wacek wept. I knelt beside the bed and felt a desire fill my heart. Stronger and stronger it grew. Desire for revenge. Desire to run somewhere, to tear someone apart, to snatch Mother back from him. I did not cry, but the pain ripped at me, as did the consciousness of the unfathomable wrong which had been done to Mother and to us.
Niusiek had woken earlier, but seemed not to understand what was happening. We told him “Mommy died”. How strange the words sounded in our mouth for the firs time. And how terrible. I cried only at the funeral.”
For the funeral I did not follow mother’s casket (a wooden box made from rough boards) to the cemetery, since I did not have any shoes. For me, mother’s death was something unreal. I did not fully realize at that time what had happened.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happen to us if uncle Strumillo did not help. Wacek would join the Polish Army and Tadek with me we would stay in that collective farm. Probably they would take me to some Russian orphanage. At that time I was still only ten. How would I mature? Would the grain of attachment to the religion, Poland and its heritage I had planted in me sprout out or rot in that “inhumane land.” But apparently God’s hand was over us.
Wacek notified Uncle Strumillo about mother’s death. He also sent a postcard to the Polish Embassy in Kuibyshev asking them to transmit that information to Maj. Jozef Herzog who most probably was in a German POW camp. After the war we were very surprised when we learned that he had received that card in the Woldenberg camp sometime in 1943.
Soon afterwards Wacek was supposed to leave with other young Poles from the collective farm to Join the Polish Army. In Aktyubinsk they stopped at the Polish Mission to get tickets and travel permits. As they were leaving one of the officials turned to Wacek and said, “Mr. Herzog, I have here a telegram for you from the Polish Embassy.”
It was a telegram from Uncle Strumillo advising us to come to Aktyubinsk as soon as possible, as a friend of his from the Polish Embassy would be going to Tashkent and would have railway tickets for us. In Tashkent, a Polish Orphanage was being assembled which would be evacuated to India. So we did that. Tadek describes the events as follows:
“We packed our meager belongings, paid off as many debts as we could and with good wishes from other Polish families we got a ride to Aktyubinsk. There, after a few days Mr. K. Gostkowski arrived and after some more difficulties with the Russian officials we left for Tashkent. We traveled, so to speak, ‘in style,’ compared with how people in Russia had to travel. We had the so called ‘plackarty,’ compartments with sleeping facilities for six people. At night you could lie down and stretch your legs. The journey to Tashkent lasted a few days.
In Tashkent we stayed only for a few days. We were “deloused”, had a good scrub in a Turkish bath and received some clean clothing. We stayed in the ‘Polish Hotel’ whose manager was an old ex-officer who knew our father from Krolewska Huta days. He was very hospitable to us when he learned that we were the son of Mr. Herzog for whom he had a great respect.
The next day, after the orphans arrived, we boarded a train that was supposed to take us all the way to Ashgabat. Wacek was still traveling with us, but after a few days he left us at the station in Kermine. Kermine was the assembly point for the candidates for the Polish Navy and Air Force that were being shipped to England. In Samarkand and Wrevsk more children from local orphanages joined us, so that by the time we reached Ashgabat our compartment resembled a barrel of herrings, we being herrings.”
At Kermine we bid Wacek farewell and we did not hear from him till ’43 when he wrote from England. Tadek describes Wacek in the following manner:
“He was a boy, or nearly a young man. He had some war experience from September of ’39. He shaved, smoked cigarettes and was dating. Probably he was less gifted than me but had much stronger character. His interests were physics and chemistry, and he loved pottering around. He was very strong for his age, but his health was not the greatest.”
In Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, we were housed in 4 buildings with a big courtyard in the middle. One building was for boys, one for girls, and one was designated as a sickbay, as many children were sick. Those with typhoid fever were sent to the local hospital in town. Many of them never come back. The fourth building was for staff and kitchens. We slept on mattresses laid on the floor. Luckily it was already spring in Turkmenistan. Beds were reserved only for the sick. I also ended up in that sick-bay, as I had an attack of malaria.
Gradually we were getting acquainted. We had good and dedicated guardians. One of them was Hanka Ordonowna, a well-known Warsaw cabaret singer and dancer. She tried to cheer us up and make the smiles return to our faces by performing and teaching us many songs. In charge of the orphanage was Fr. Franciszek (Francis) Pluta.
The first group of children to leave Russia for Persia (today Iran) was being assembled and left in the middle of March. As I had not fully recovered I stayed behind and so did Tadek, not wanting to leave me. When the trucks returned from Mashed, the second group was getting ready to leave. We left Ashgabat about noon on March 19, 1942. By early evening we were at the border. They did not keep us long. After some checking of documents, the barrier was slowly raised. We entered Persia, which was partially controlled by the Russian and British troops, but nevertheless an independent country without the dreaded NKWD, without concentration camps.
The convoy of our trucks was slowly climbing the treacherous, narrow roads (serpentines) in the mountains and then going downhill into the valley. Here spring was in full blast, the greenery was splendid, and the mountains magnificent. For the night we stopped in a small town where we got a hot meal. We were hungry and tired, but above all very excited, children and adults alike, that we had left Russia behind. We lay down, side by side on the wooden floor of a shelter and covered ourselves with blankets, but for a long time we could not get to sleep.
Next day after a thanksgiving Mass celebrated by Fr. Pluta once again we boarded trucks and on to Mashed and then India.
Like Autumn Leaves
Like autumn leaves we were scattered on our journey
And ever since we have been blown from place to place
And as the wind’s fury blows more cruelly on the poor man
We each felt it gust in our face.
In Mashed we had to stay for a few weeks as a sort of quarantine to make sure that we did not bring some infectious diseases to India. We stayed in some buildings which were a part of a Persian orphanage. We were fed well, gained some weight, received new clothing suitable for hotter climate and started to look like “real people”. Many children were sick, but luckily with nothing as serious as typhoid fever. Many of us, including me, had mumps, but the fever and discomfort lasted only about a week. One big room was designated as a sickbay where everybody, boys and girls were treated. We slept on mattresses laid on the floor.
Ms. Ordonowna was still with us and continued to teach us many new songs. I remember one evening we had a big bonfire and many people from the town were invited. We entertained them with songs and Ms. Ordonowna, dressed in the Polish national costume, sang and then danced with great vigor and received thunderous applause.
At the beginning of April we left Mashed for our journey to India. There were about 170 children plus our guardians. The whole convoy must have been fifteen or more trucks. It was led by four men: vice-consul T. Lisiecki, Dr. St. Konarski, H. Hadala and Dajek. In each truck there were fourteen or so people. Inside the truck, on its sides and in the back, wooden benches were constructed to facilitate sitting. The roof and sides were covered with canvas and the back also had a canvas sheet that could be rolled up. We had very little baggage, just some bundles that were stashed under benches.
As soon as we left Mashed we were in the desert. We had never seen anything like it. A vast plain, as far as one could see, covered with very fine white/yellowish sand. From time to time far on the horizon we could see some trees and water, but in reality it was a mirage. Never could we reach those trees or get to the water. I have no idea how our drivers knew where to drive as there were no visibly marked roads. I am sure they had to drive by compass.
Inside the trucks it was very hot but as soon as we would roll up the back canvas, sand would get in, and then it was more difficult to breath. We stopped frequently to get some fresh air and drink some water that we carried in big metal canisters. But before we would get out of the truck we had to wait for sand churned by the moving trucks to settle down. For food we had sandwiches washed down with water and some fruit. We did not pass any towns or even settlements and for the night we usually stopped by some rest houses or big garages and were lucky if they let us sleep on the floor wrapped in our blankets, otherwise we had to sleep in the trucks. Sometimes at those night stops if it was prearranged to serve us some cooked meals. I remember that Easter Sunday we spent in the desert and Fr. Pluta celebrated Mass on the back of the truck served as an altar.
After a few days of driving through the desert big mountains were in front of us through which we had to go. These mountains were in complete contrast to the one we drove through on the way to Meshed. They were hostile looking, with no greenery, just barren rocks, and, once again, hairpin bends with deep ravines on the side. Drivers had to be extremely skilled to negotiate them. A few times, at the more dangerous bends, for safety’s sake, we would get off the trucks. Luckily, there were no accidents.
I believe that part of the journey took us through Afghanistan. Apparently bandits were hiding in the mountains and sometimes they attacked convoys. For our safety one truck with soldiers accompanied us for a day and every driver was issued a gun.
The whole journey from Meshhad to the Indian border lasted 6 days. On April 10 we entered the country, which, for nearly 6 years would become our refuge. The border town was Nok-Kundi. Here, a special train, that would take us to Bombay was waiting for us. Next day we reached Quetta. There Mrs. Kira Banasinska, wife of the Polish Consul General, and at the same time chairperson of the Polish Red Cross welcomed us. On the platform a large crowd of people (Europeans and Indians) gathered to welcome us on the Indian Territory. They gave us sweets (candies), fruits and refreshing drinks. I do not know why our train had to go to Bombay via Delhi. At many stations the train would stop for a few hours and we would have warm receptions similar to the one in Quetta. Well, we had to give something from ourselves, so we gave the only thing that we had, singing. It might have been in Delhi where we had to sing the English national anthem. We learned the words without understanding them and on top of that our pronunciation left much to be desired. I am sure that instead of “God save the King” we sang “God shave the King.” No wonder that on so many faces in the crowd there were smiles.
At one of the stations a Polish missionary, a Salesian, Brother Eustachy, joined us. He was a great help as he knew English and a few Indian languages. He stayed with us until we left Balachadi camp in 1946.
I do not remember much of the train journey to Bombay except that the scenery was ever changing. The whole train consisted of a few carriages. The carriages were not divided into compartments so we had plenty of room, even to run around. There were wooden benches, but much wider then the ones in the trucks, and therefore so much more comfortable. There were windows to look through and above all no dust and sand. At night you could stretch out on the bench, cover yourself with a blanket and put your head on a small pillow. During the day two big ice blocks covered in sawdust were put in each carriage to cool the air. I cannot recall what and how they fed us, but they must have. The sweets and fruits that we received from people would not have been enough.
On April 15 we arrived in Bombay. From the station they took us by buses (not trucks!!!!) to the suburb of Bombay - Bandra. Here, a big house (about 20 rooms) was rented for us. The house stood just across the street from the sea. The first thing we did after coming to the house was to have a good meal. One big hall as designated as a dining room, with chairs and tables covered with tablecloths. After the meal we went to the bathroom to take showers. There was hot and cold water and plenty of it. What a luxury! Bedrooms had real beds with soft mattresses and clean sheets. Each of us had his own bed. And for a “good night,” on each bed there was a big, juicy orange. There was none on my bed. Probably somebody took it. Tears come to my eyes. Luckily Tadek shared his orange with me.
After some time, a second building was rented for us. It was situated a bit further from the sea, but higher up, with a splendid view of a fishing pier and the sea. All boys were transferred to that second building. Girls stayed in the original building. We had to go there for meals and for classes. Among our guardians there were a few teachers. However, there was shortage of pens, pencils, exercise books, text books and above all programs. They had to improvise. I was assigned to 4th grade. Classes were held in the morning. After dinner there was a compulsory two hour rest period. We had to lie on our beds and pretend that we were asleep. In the afternoon we had sports, choir practice and swimming in the nice warm sea.
We were all checked by doctors and dentists. I had anemia, so they sent me and some other kids to a hospital in Bombay. Probably all I needed was a good diet, good rest and to improve my blood count extra vitamins and iron. In two weeks they sent me back to rejoin other kids.
In the middle of July, with regret, we had to leave Bandra and move to a new location; camp specially built for us. About its location and life in the camp I will write later on. But now I will go to Tadek’s memoirs.
“Our trip from Mashhad to Bombay was very pleasant. We went by army trucks all the way to Nok-Kundi on the Indian border. There we got on a train and after a few days arrived to Bombay ‘Central’ station. We were welcomed there with a great joy and then taken to the outskirts of the city, to Bandra.
After a few days, when we got accustomed to our new quarters and a normal life, school started. Straight away I realized how much behind I was in my education and how much I had to make up. All of us lived on a verandah. That is, all the older boys. Bobis Tyszkiewicz and I started publishing a hand written newsletter, Voice of the Verandah. We had great success with it and though it took a lot of our free time, I was happy. This newsletter was very popular. It had everything: poems, chronicles, news, advertisements and humor. What a pity that the boys moved to another building while I stayed behind in the sickbay to recover from all kinds of boils and ulcers and thus our newsletter came to an end. Altogether we published seven or eight issues.
From Bandra I have very pleasant memories. We got to know each other much better. I developed a real friendship with Bobis, we were very close as we had very similar dispositions and outlooks on many things. Together we studied English. I really enjoyed swimming in the sea, running barefoot along the asphalt road when it rained, bicycling, trips to Bombay, parties and everything, everything else.
Gradually I also learned to live again. I was held in good repute with elders; but as far as girls I was “complete amateur.” What a fool I was! I always regarded them as good, natural friends. My naiveté could have cost me a lot. But luckily God had me in his protection and opened my eyes.
Then towards the end of our stay in Bandra I got an infected finger and had to go to the hospital in Bombay for operation. I have to be thankful to Mr. Zmigrocki that I did not lose my hand or even my life. I stayed in Bombay for two more weeks after our orphanage moved to Balachadi. “
North of Bombay in the Gujurat province on the Kathiawar peninsula some 15 miles from Jamnagar, the capital of Navanagar principality, close to the village of Balachadi a complex of barracks was built to house our orphanage. I take the description of the camp and its location from the book, Poles in India, in a chapter written by my friend Wieslaw Stypula.
“About 15 miles from Jamnagar on a cliff rising from the sea bed stood the beautiful summer residence of the maharaja Jam Saheb. On the east side of the palace there was a park like garden and on the west side facing the sea there was a big swimming pool. Water in the pool was refreshed at every high tide. In southerly direction from the palace stretched a long sandy beach. A bit inland from the sandy beach on the dunes there was a narrow strip of grass shaded by acacia trees, tall agaves plants and cacti. On that grassy strip there was a well-kept golf course.
Further away from the seashore stretched semi desert scenery with numerous rocky hills sparsely covered with grass, thorny bushes and swirls of cacti. In some places, especially near wells or reservoirs with fresh water, huge banyan-trees with long lianas, palms and other trees were growing.
Our camp was built on one of the hills, about a mile from the palace and approximately the same distance from the village of Balachadi. It could house seven to eight hundred people. There were over sixty very simple barracks covered with red, clay tiles. The basic building material consisted of stone, cement, and some lumber in roof.
Barracks for children were 130ft by 17 ft with no partitions inside, no ceiling and with an earthen floor. There were two doors and a number of windows on both sides. Windows had no glass panes, only a few wooden bars to which nets were attached as a protection against mosquitoes and other insects.
Each kid had his own wooden bed with a mattress, pillow, bed linen and a blanket. Above each bed there was a mosquito net. Wooden shelves ran along the walls. By each bed there was a small table on which a metal trunk stood. With that trunk I came to England in 1947. In addition in each barrack there were a few benches and two large tables on which we could do our homework or write letters. There was no electricity in the camp so barracks were illuminated with paraffin lamps. Barracks for personnel were similar but subdivided into ‘apartments’ consisting of two small rooms. Toilets and bathrooms were in separate buildings, designated for boys, girls and adults. Kitchens, sickbay and bathrooms had concrete floors.”
For the duration of the orphanage stay Fr. Franciszek Pluta was its commandant and Mrs. Z. Rozwadowska, his deputy. Today I realize what a difficult task he had. At its maximum the orphanage had well over six hundred children ages two to seventeen plus teachers, guardians and auxiliary staff - all together some seven hundred people. And what a cross section both in mentality and morality they represented. There were not many problems with younger kids. However, some problems existed with adults and older children. After two years of living in the communist system where the only thing that mattered was survival, no matter at what cost, no wonder that some minds and morals were corrupted. Some kids had complexes. Fr. Pluta gave this example.
“We had two Jewish boys among us. Do you remember Urban? He wanted to drown them. When I asked him why he replied, “ Why? Why? I was in the Russian orphanage that was run by a Russian Jew. He hated Poles and made my stay there really miserable.”
More Jewish children came with other transports but within a few months all of them, sponsored by Jewish organizations, departed for Palestine.
We were lucky; we had good and dedicated guardians. Some of them wanted to substitute for our lost parents. I know now, there was some friction between Fr. Pluta and some of the guardians regarding discipline. But nobody in the camp including Fr. Pluta was a professional pedagogue. To inject discipline and to regulate day to day life in the camp was his first priority. He was semi military man and he wanted to run the camp in that fashion.