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Irena Hunka was born in Poland in 1925. In 1940, she was deported to a labour camp in Siberia by the Russians, as part of their ethnic cleansing of the eastern borderlands of Poland.


She was forcibly taken from her 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.

She was 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.

Following the ’amnesty’ that was negotiated as part of the Sikorski-Majewski agreement, she journeyed through Uzbekistan, Iran and India to settle in a Polish refugee camp in Uganda where she lived for eight years.

The Polish refugee camps were equipped with schools – elementary, middle school, high school, and a technical school; a YMCA with sports and recreational facilities and a reasonable library; a cinema covered by a roof on stilts but without walls; and an open-air theatre. There was a co-op bakery, and a co-op store sold a modest supply of sundries along with foodstuffs from the settlement’s impressive farm. Established in order to make the settlement as self-sufficient as possible, the farm accomplished this with great success, combining crops native to Africa as well as – climate permitting – old favourites from Poland.

In the early 1950s Irena emigrated to Canada and settled in Winnipeg where she met her husband, Emil. Irena worked as a nurse's aide at the Tache Hospital for over 30 years.

Irena passed away in Winnipeg on September 10, 2021.

Copyright: Hunka family

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