Through the eyes of one child and the memories of many orphans
Christine Wallace and Victoria Wallace
Preface: Poland – My Birthplace
A common belief is that seniors over eighty should retire and enjoy the rest of their lives playing bingo, cards, chess, watching TV, and doing a bit of gardening and shopping. Many talented people are not satisfied with these simple occupations, so they start painting, writing, or helping those in their communities who are less fortunate then themselves. As long as their health stays with them and their minds are co-operating they continue to be productive and lively members of society.
Recent reflections on my life made me realize it would be interesting to write an autobiography. My hope was that my story would provide a voice for the millions of children who were orphaned during the onset of the 2nd World War and who likely had lived through experiences which were similar to my own.
Poland was quite powerful in the XVI & XVII centuries. The Empire of Poland, at times, had reached from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, its territory being important for its position along trade routes in the Baltic Region. Although the Polish Empire was continually invaded, beginning in 1605, technology and education in Poland remained strong and progressive for the time. However, in 1795, through military disregard and lavish royal spending, the country was lost to our opportunistic neighbours, Russia, Prussia and Austria, then carved and partitioned among them. Our royals escaped into France, Italy, England and America, leaving Poland without a ruler. Consequently, Poland was absent from the world map for 123 years, until 1918.
During this time, former Poland’s compatriots – grotesque injustices, like starvation, random, endured a tremendous amount of suffering
incarceration, forbidden use of the Polish language and education, expulsion from their lands and properties, among just a few.
In spite of the helplessness and resignation of the Poles, our literary, religious and political giants did not acquiesce. They organized underground meetings to keep the nation’s culture, language and history alive and maintain the patriotic spirit of the people. They started to prepare for the great task of gaining back the country they had lost. Józef Piłsudski was the politician who inspired the Polish people to go to war with Russia to gain their independence back after living under the yoke of foreign rule.
Józef Piłsudski, the famous Polish marshal and statesman was repeatedly exiled and imprisoned by Russian authorities for his continual and defiant efforts to restore Poland’s independence. In WWI he organized and commanded Polish forces under Austrian sponsorship, to fight against Russia between 1914 and l916. Piłsudski was responsible for the resurrection of an independent Poland in 1918 and went on to command the Polish Army during the Russian-Polish war, to a resounding victory over the Red Army at the battle of Warsaw in August 1920. The victory in Warsaw led to the Peace Treaty of Riga, Lithuania in 1921, which established the eastern frontiers of Poland.
Piłsudski’s army, consisted of fully participating soldiers as young as 16. My father was one of these soldiers. However, he was only 14 at the time, but secretly registered as a 16 year old. Because of my father’s participation in the Russian-Polish war, he received a Polish medal – the “Virtuti Militari”, a less ornate substitute of the original medal, because of the lack of gold at the time. Still, its historical military significance is of equal value to the original.
My father was later in the Austrian war with Italy where he was captured and enlisted in the Italian army. For his contributions, he received a medal called “The Star of Italy”. He remained in Italy and, having fallen in love with the language, put in a lot of effort to learn as much of the native tongue as possible. In fact, his dedicated mastery of the Italian language lead to an offer of a position in the Polish embassy in Rome. He turned the position down, preferring a return to his native Poland.
Once Poland’s independence was gained back, the retrieved land was partitioned and given to those soldiers who served during the war, and who had sufficient agricultural knowledge to care for the land. As a descendant of a long line of landowners, my father qualified and received eighteen hectares (54 acres) of rich soil bordering a river on the north and a highway on the south. When he took possession of the land, he saw great possibilities. I was born on this parcel of land, a part of the partitioned Poland of 123 years before.
My Father was an officer Chorąży Podchorąży, equivalent of a warrant/cadet officer, and a qualified teacher who obtained a teaching position in a school in Polonka. This is where he met my mother Wiktorja Jesmanowna.
My mother had more experience at the school and had influence over the incoming teachers who needed help adjusting to the school teaching curriculum. There were a few misunderstandings at first, but my mother was fond of my father and began inviting him over to her place for some good Polish meals, which started a closer relationship between the two of them. They married and decided to build a new house and raise a family. Eventually there were four of us kids; my brothers, Zenon and Witold, my sister, Mary and me, Irena.
My parents had to hire many people in order to help manage the property, cultivate the land and take care of the animals. They both taught, so my father called upon his sister, my Aunt Bronia, to supervise the property when they were absent from home. The new house was built when I was only four years old. The layout was based on my father’s own design, since he was not satisfied with his architect’s inadequate concepts.
Father invested money in purchasing agricultural machinery and equipment, thus improving the productivity of the land. Consequently, he had good output and was able to send his produce to town markets and stores, which at the time were mainly occupied by entrepreneurs, for the most part from the Polish Jewish local community.
When I think back on this time, our lives seemed ideal on this small gem of land, where we enjoyed living and utilizing every corner of the property. The enterprise prospered, we kids were growing up and our parents were happy.
A few years later father was promoted to a school Principal’s position in another town, to which he had to commute by train. My mother was able to retire from her job and took responsibility of the house and, to a lesser degree, supervision of our agricultural business. All was well for a few years until mother contracted Tuberculosis and her condition started to deteriorate. She was treated at home with a doctor making regular visits, but when it became more severe, she had to be hospitalized in the city Pinsk.
Father resigned from his position as school principal, took a government job in Pinsk, and rented a house there to which he moved the family. This way we could attend a local school and be close to the hospital my mother was in.
Every day when father came home we would all go to see our mother who would be standing in the hospital hallway looking and waving at us from afar, not being able to get too close to the family.
When it became apparent to my mother that the end was near, she expressed to my Father her desire to die in her own home. So, with the doctor’s consent, we saw to my mother’s last wishes and the family returned by train to our home with our mother.
On Dec 26th 1936, Father told us to take the record player and records and go spend some time with our neighbour’s kids. About two hours later Aunt Bronia knocked on the door crying and told the neighbour about our mother’s passing. My eldest brother, Zenon, stopped the music, packed up the records and record player, and with heavy hearts, we left for home.
Because of the contagiousness of my mother’s illness, we were not allowed to enter our parents’ room, so saddened and disappointed, we went to our own bedrooms for the night. My father would now have to be a mother and father to us kids.
The next day preparations were made for an open casket visitation in our house. My mother’s body, enrobed in a black silk gown, lay peacefully in an oak casket embellished with silver angels all around. Countless bouquets of flowers saturated the spacious living room with their aroma. Our father tried to console us, though he, himself, was clearly overcome with grief at the loss of his beloved wife and mother of his children. We were given a few days of mourning while our mother lay in repose.
The funeral service was held in a Roman Catholic Church in Polonka and was followed by the burial in a local cemetery, where the priest conducted a memorial and a traditional mass. The cemetery was filled with people mourning the loss of my mother: relatives, neighbours, her co-workers from the school and many of her former pupils.
Our house felt empty – as if it’s soul had left with my mother’s departure from life. We missed our mother terribly in the months and years that followed her death. I still feel the pain and longing for her I felt after her passing. I will always remember her gentle smile, hugs and kisses for she was a very warm, loving human being. She was my mother.
I was only eight years old at the time of my mother’s death while Mary was ten, Witold fourteen and Zenon sixteen, so it was difficult to imagine what the future would hold for us without our mother.
Unfortunately life had to go on without her, so we went back to school and our father, back to work. Our Aunt Bronia and the maid, who together did an excellent job of taking care of us, undertook the task of further maintaining the home, caring for the family and trying to help us during and after this unhappy period of mourning. Inside and outside of the house, our lives, work and business continued in due course. Father kept the government job and he never went back to his Principal’s position.
After a year of mourning, Father met a woman - a teacher, Theodosia Spiewak. After a brief courtship, they married. Theodosia enthusiastically delved into the care of my father, all of us children, the house and property with a passionate dedication. She industriously planted, grew and cultivated her own flowers and vegetables. She knitted intricately detailed sweaters and socks for all of us and fancy gloves, hats and purses for my sister, Mary and me. In time, my father and Tesia, as we all called my step mother, had two children: my brother, Andrew, and my sister, Martha. Tesia was wonderful to all of us and for this, she was admired and respected.
The year, 1938 was a good year and Father accomplished a great deal. With our stepmother’s help and supervision, all the work was always done on time. Tesia was accepted to teach in the local school and, having hired a full time nanny at home, was confident that everything would work out - and it did. Because our stepmother had so successfully taken the reins of the care of the house, property and the family, my Aunt Bronia was able to leave us and return back to our grandfather’s home, eventually pursuing her own education.
Although Tesia was a welcome addition to our family, we all truly missed my Aunt Bronia, since she had been with us since the births of all the children. She had been called upon by my father to help my mother as a nanny, but she was young enough to have been like an older sister to us, swimming, skiing, skating and sledding with my brothers, Mary and I. She treated us not like children, but like peers; siblings. My brothers, consequently, were always somewhat resentful of Tesia because they saw her presence as the cause of the loss of their best friend, Bronia.
In 1939, rumours that the Russians and Germans were going to invade Poland began to circulate. As was the mode of the delivery for information
to the people at the time, flyers were dropped across the country by plane warning the citizens of the growing threat of a Russian-German invasion. In September, we noticed the Russian army marching west into Poland, but we kids did not understand the foreboding menace.
Later on that year Nazi German propaganda fliers appeared in towns and farms displaying caricatures of Jews blaming them for the exploitation of Poles suffering from injustice. They were ugly mockeries of Jews, and knowing them as part of our community and hardworking people, this was unjustified slander, which we had to ignore. These were our countrymen – fellow Poles!
Meanwhile, life went on as usual, and our brothers were sent to a High School in the city of Baranowicze. Our stepmother wanted to escape the inevitable invasion by the Russians, so she packed her bags and moved her two young children to her mother’s place in the west, hoping for a less worrisome life. She unsuccessfully tried to urge Father and the rest of us to join her, but it was not in the stars. He could not bring himself to leave his property and although he knew Poland was likely to be invaded, he never imagined his land would be confiscated and that we would be imprisoned.
In the fall, Mary and I would enjoy playing outside during the twilight hours. It was typically serene and beautiful as the setting sun lit up the sky with a warm golden glow, but on this particular evening the sky was peculiar. In fact, it appeared threatening to us, with the clouds rapidly shifting; constantly changing shapes. We stood there watching in fearful anticipation of what forms would materialize next. Suddenly the clouds formed a man with an arm pointing in one direction towards what looked like a mass of people in the sky; another commotion in the clouds - then the man’s pointed arm shifted directly at the crowd. Again another disturbance in the clouds and the man and his arm disappeared. We were fascinated and remained mesmerized staring at the sky to see the rest of this display in the clouds. They dissipated and uncovered the golden light of the sunset. Clouds in the shape of a small ship then appeared at a distance in the sky and started growing larger, seemingly closer, gradually lowering itself towards the ground. On this ship, we could clearly see the silhouettes of people. It looked so real that we panicked and ran into the house to hide.
We thought the people on that ship would come to the house and look for us but they never did. Mary and I kept this experience in confidence, afraid our father would wave off this bizarre tale. But this prophetic vision proved itself to be mysteriously accurate as I will demonstrate further in this narrative.
The Russian army continued marching west through the autumn months, unhinging our comfortable lives. Father feared the unknown in forthcoming days. He arranged for some important members of our community to come to the house to discuss the preservation of public and private matters. I remember seeing our priest, rabbi, school principal, policemen and some business owners contemplating with Father how they might protect themselves, their families, their valuables, documents and possibly even escape the country.
Christmas that year was a lonely time without our stepmother, younger brother and sister, but in spite of his likely fear of the impending threat of invasion, father kept these worries to himself and made the best of the holiday season for his family - his good spirits rubbed off on all of us. During the first week of January 1940, our brothers went back to high school and we continued in our local elementary school.
News was spreading around, that the Russians were initiating a forced evacuation of people from certain of Poland from their homes and into prisons in Siberia. This news swept eastern Poland with fear and disbelief. Although father had registered for the Polish army previously, he asked to be dismissed so he could be with his family in the event of a forced evacuation. We were already on shaky ground when, on February 10, 1940 at 6:00am, we heard a knock on the front door. When father opened the door, he stood face to face with two armed Russian soldiers. When he asked them what they were looking for, one of them immediately answered that we were all under arrest and we were being evacuated as prisoners to Siberia, Russia. This was twenty one days after my 11th birthday.
Evacuation to Siberia
The Russian soldiers gave us about half a day to gather up a meager quantity of our basic life necessities. The maid helped us select warm clothing, bedding, some pots, pans, plates and cutlery for my sister, father and myself. She had prepared breakfast, while my father secretly started a fire in his bedroom fireplace, using war documents as kindling – documents which revealed his participation in WW1 where he had fought against the Russian army - in order to save himself and us from further incrimination and persecution. Father took some of his belongings such as better clothes, his tuxedo, a lot of stationery, and the radio.
After warmly dressing ourselves, we loaded up the waiting two-horse sleigh with our luggage. The driver cracked the whip and the sleigh moved slowly away from home. The maid was crying, the dog was barking and the soldiers had grins on their faces. It was mid-afternoon and the sky was dark and covered with clouds. There was a lot of snow on the road which creaked as the sleigh was pulled along. You could hear the driver whipping the horses, whenever they slowed down.
The trip took three or four hours to the station in Baranowicze. I had fallen asleep during the trip and when I awoke, I was startled to see, right in front of our sleigh, cattle cars in a long train. Confused and frightened, I asked my sister Mary what these windowless trains were for and if and where we were going on them. When she noticed a Russian soldier within earshot, she whispered to me that she did not know and not to ask too many questions. I looked left and right and could not see the front or the back of the train. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of people standing with us beside the train, apparently also waiting to board. As the sleigh had pulled away, armed soldiers slid open two heavy doors. Some soldiers directed the crowds, pointing towards the cars. Suddenly, I was jolted at the memory of the cloud display my sister and I had witnessed at our home in Poland – of the man pointing his hand, directing the crowds of people! In those clouds, it now became apparent to me, we had seen the foreshadowing of Russian soldiers ordering us onto the trains!
We, along with all of the waiting throngs, entered the cattle cars, children first with the help of a small ladder. In the center of the car, there was a small metal heater, the only source to keep us barely warm. On each side, against the walls of the car there were top and bottom bunks, of which the top ones were meant for children and bottom for adults. The floor area around the heater was where we piled up our entire luggage.
The men started the fire going with coals, and soldiers brought in “kipiatok” which was boiling water for drinking because we were extremely cold and it took some time to warm up the wagon. Later on they brought some soup and bread and that was our food until morning. There were about sixty people inside, counting children.
The door was closed and secured from the outside with double locks. Father was sitting with the men on the other end of the car. Having had to face this condemnation, they were all rendered speechless by their feelings of helplessness. We were at the mercy of insufficient food to keep us warm as the severe winter cold persisted. Our father instructed us to sleep in our winter clothes and cover ourselves with blankets for extra warmth.
The train started moving and the fearful people, alienated from their homes and homeland, cried, sung church songs through tear-filled eyes and prayed. Children complained about their hunger and cold. The train made nerve wracking, hammering noises after passing each rail junction for the duration of the trip, disturbing our already difficult sleep. My father got all the men together and composed a letter to Stalin asking him to release us all and to stop this inhuman treatment. All the men signed at the bottom and he enclosed it in a personal business envelope he had taken from his office. He gave the letter to one of the soldiers who were making kipiatok rounds, politely asking him in the Russian language to send it to Stalin. Of course, we never received an answer, for a soldier would not deliver any correspondence from prisoners for fear of their own safety.
The train, besides being overcrowded, did not have a toilet. Instead, there was a hole where the wall of the car met the floor. Through this hole, a crude wooden trough had been diagonally installed, extending outside of the train. The men hung a couple of blankets around this toilet for privacy. Our poor diet caused everyone, especially the children, to have diarrhea, forcing us to discard our underwear through the toilet opening. When the line up to the toilet was getting too long, we would ask permission to stop the train, so some of us could go under the train to relieve ourselves. They would stop in a deserted place and have the armed soldiers guarding us so that no one could escape.
We subsisted on meagre portions of soup, bread and kipiatok for the six day duration of this miserable trip to our prison camp. When the car door was opened for the kipiatok round, we prisoners went wild screaming and stamping our feet with in futile protest of our treatment.
Through the small train window, Mary and I took turns looking out to see the Russian countryside, which was not very complementary. Besides piles of snow, we could see skeletons of abandoned buildings, destroyed farms and no signs of life – virtually inhospitable environment for human habitation.
It was a long and brutal six day train journey to Poldniewica, the Siberian prison camp we were being taken to, but at this point nobody cared. We were all too weak, hungry and demoralized to protest our treatment any more.
Life in the Barracks
When the train finally stopped, the doors were flung wide open where two large women waited to take us children out. Ironically, they reacted enthusiastically at seeing some of their new prisoners were so young, happily announcing, “Oh, rebiata!” meaning, “oh, look children!” The adults followed, jumping onto the ground, unless they were too weak or sick to do so.
We were again put on sleighs, which took us to Poldniewica and the barracks, our cramped dwellings of detention. There were twenty barracks in all. Inside each there was a central walkway the length of the building. On each side of the walkway were sectioned off cubicles in two levels. The cubicles were about six by six feet in depth and width and six feet tall on the bottom row, with the top row about a foot shorter in height. These tiny spaces were designed to sleep and house three people on each bunk per cubicle. The main floor bunks could be converted into a table with benches on each side, while the top ones were stationery and people had to eat in a reclined position.
In the next few days our men were put to work chopping trees and cleaning the land for development. My father sold all of our remaining belongings of any value to our co-prisoners and some Russian prison employees who were hungry for our western styles of clothing, stationery for writing letters, and other items - even our camp’s Russian commandant bought our radio because, as a soldier, he wasn’t afforded such luxuries
All of us child prisoners in the Siberian gulag were obligated to attend Russian school. Stalin’s intention was to educate us in the communistic system to eventually assimilate into Russian society. The teachers conducted classes in the eastern Slavic language of Russian which we understood by ear, but we had to learn the characters of the Cyrillic alphabet and it took some time before we were able to read and write.
My grade five homeroom teacher was a young female with long, light hair, parted in the middle, who appeared much like a young woman of today. She seemed to be more sympathetic towards us and even caught the eye of the principal who later married her. Mary’s teacher on the other hand was provocative and demanding. During a course on the history of Human Civilization, her teacher tried to tell the class that there was no God, and that we had all come from monkeys. This enraged my sister, who promptly stood up and told her that she was the only one who came from a monkey. This caused uproar in the classroom and the rest of the kids shouted out exclamations of confirmation. The whole class was suspended and held until our angry parents stormed into the school first banging on doors and windows and eventually breaking in to seize the children and run back to their barracks for the late supper. The following day, their complaint was issued and the teacher was reprimanded for her own decision to punish the kids for expressing their opinion.
There was only one brick stove that had to be shared among the sixty people in each barrack. This lack of cooking facilities made it difficult to eat at the same time. There was no fruit of any kind, only jam that was rationed for everybody. This lack of vitamins and minerals in our diets caused us to break out in boils all over our bodies. We were advised to treat the boils with direct applications of kerosene, but this treatment produced rashes – another hurdle in overcoming the problem. To this day, the resulting indelible scars on my body are reminders of my time in the Russian prison.
The camp had one large women’s public bath called “bania”, where we could only have a sponge bath, for there were no showers. There was also a steam bath that had three steps leading upwards to a platform at the top if someone wanted hot steam. Russian women, naked muscular women, who we had seen outside chopping wood like the men, would spend time on the top platform whipping their bodies until they were beet red with what looked to our children’s’ eyes like small brooms! Mary and I had crept into the steam baths to have a look, but when we witnessed this perverse display, we quickly snuck out, not wanting to witness a suicide!
There was no easy escape from the gulag for any who attempted to devise such a scheme. Still, some disillusioned young people took the chance, but would inevitably be caught by the Russian guards. These teenagers were then placed in detention rooms, as a mild punishment for their disobedience. When they were released back to the barracks, we younger children would listen wide-eyed at the adventurous retelling of their brave endeavours. They were our heroes at the time and I still smile fondly at the memory of their stories.
Some women with children from our barracks would attempt to walk to nearby farms to purchase vegetables and flour, so Mary and I would join them, hoping also to bring back some healthy food to our father and our home in the barracks.
The Russian people who operated the farms around the barracks where we had purchased vegetables, had heard by word of mouth that the German army was moving east through Poland and other countries they had invaded, towards Russia. These farmers were frightened and asked us Polish prisoners about what to expect; what sort of threat this posed to their lives and country. They asked us for as much information as possible in order to prepare themselves for the inevitable, but unfortunately, we could not advise them of anything more than our own experiences of when the Russians had invaded Poland – of which the circumstances were unpredictable and unexpected.
Once our father found out where we had gone, he hitchhiked to the farm and was taken by a farmer to where Poles would go to buy produce. He forbade us from leaving the camp from then on, for even though we had good intentions, we were still children and he felt we were putting ourselves at risk in an unknown environment.
In the evening there were millions of mosquitoes in the air, which, between their bites and menacing noises, would put a premature end to our games of hide and seek. For entertainment, people would gather in a vestibule to sing Polish songs and tell stories. Father knew how to read and write many languages, including German, French, Italian, English, Swedish and Russian. He would buy the local newspaper and invite people in the barracks to hear and discuss the news about politics, particularly any news speculating the end of the war and our hopeful return to Poland.
Older men would get together in the evenings for chess games or the Spirit Calling game, which, like the Ouija Board, is believed to function by muscle movements that occur outside of conscious awareness. The Spirit Calling game involved six men sitting around a wooden table without nails, their hands touching, to form an oval on the tabletop. They would then call forth great warriors from the past, such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Jozef Pilsudski or Lenin, etc., and take turns asking questions about the war, the length of our imprisonment and when the Germans planned to invade Russia. Miraculously, the table would lift up off the ground on one side and thump out the numbers in days, months or years given by the spirit. The game always started out in a civil manner, but if the answers were not what the men wanted to hear, they would blame one short man, who had to stand to lengthen his arms so their hands would maintain the oval position required in the game. The short man would in turn blame the man who was very tall for this problem. They would then stop and change seats, which also did not work. Inevitably, they would all quarrel and scare away the spirits, but in the end, they would eventually hear what they wanted to hear, and would shake hands, parting satisfied. Our father was also happy to see them leave, for he had to work the next day.
The following day, Mary and I, young girls though we were, would giggle when as we recalled the previous night’s Spirit calling. For even as children, we found this practice silly, especially seeing respected, grown men hoping to conjure answers to complicated matters with a game. Still, it was a pastime that, perhaps, they knew to be nothing more than a simple game, temporarily helping them to drown out the miseries of their freezing Siberian imprisonment and give them hope for a better tomorrow.
In the winter my Aunt Bronia and our brothers, who escaped to the south of Poland would send us parcels with bacon and other food which was very much needed in this extremely cold winter, because standing outside in a line-up for food was punishing. There was also a dining building where one could get some soup, bread and kipiatok.
I remember one terribly cold, -40 Siberian winter morning, when I was about 11 years old, we prisoners were waiting at the door of the building where we were given our daily bread rations. We were so freezing cold, we didn’t line up, but instead huddled together to generate some body heat.
When the door finally opened, we had to form a line and wait our turn for the paltry bread rations in the slightly warmer building interior. Perhaps, it was the extreme cold or my hunger, but the wait seemed unreasonably long that day. When I finally reached the front of the line, the rotund woman doling out our portions said to me, “There’s no bread for you today!” I was so shocked to hear this, I almost fainted. But when she passed the bread to me, I realized she had only been joking. I truly believe I would have passed out if I hadn’t received the bread. I know this is just a memory of one person’s poorly conceived idea of a joke, but 72 years later I can still feel the pain of that desperate and fearful moment.
Promotion to More Space
As described earlier, the barracks were very overcrowded, with a paltry 6’ x 6’ cubicle assigned to sleep three, with no walking space once the beds were opened up from their daytime table/bench configuration. Some of us prisoners approached the supervisor and asked if it was possible to be given larger spaces to live. As a result, my sister, our father and I were assigned one large room with four beds, a table and six chairs to share with another couple and their two daughters. Mary and I shared one bed, the other two girls shared another, their parents shared the third, and my father slept on a single. The room was in the same building as the barracks, but on the opposite end, possibly former quarters of some of the military staff.
This room was a lot more comfortable than the barracks, but we found out soon enough that it was infested with bed bugs, which would bite us all unmercifully. The men decided to fight those blood suckers and stayed up at night waiting for them to come out of the cracks in the walls. They would light up the walls with kerosene lamps and bludgeon them counting their victims as they moved on; fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty, on and on. Of course, their babies would multiply their counts by two or three, but they were so fast that it was useless trying to chase these little ones. It was hard to fall asleep while they worked like soldiers killing this unarmed minuscule battalion. Bedbugs have a clever strategy, attacking from the ceiling and dropping down on their sleeping prey.
The most tragic events were funerals of mothers, leaving their children to their young husbands who were unable to take care of them and had to depend on kindly women who had their own children to care for.
Looking back I realize how lucky we were to have had our father with us.There were hundreds or thousands of kids that did not have mothers or fathers or were abandoned by them and left to wander from stations to private homes all over Russia just looking for a piece of bread. There were crosses with Polish names marking the dead spread all along the route and in areas where we people were destined for prisons.
God was on our side, and all this started to change when the Germans were getting closer to the Russian border. Stalin decided he needed more help to fight the enemy, so he made an agreement with Generals Anders and Sikorski, allowing them to organize a Polish army in Russia. Our General Anders’ condition was to release all the women and children prisoners out of the country and to provide food and transportation to Persia. The deal was made and Russian, American, English and Polish governments jointly made it all possible. Near the end of 1941, the evacuation had started and trains were made ready for us prisoners. A search for women and orphans had been organized in full force, making sure not to overlook any of the more isolated parts of Russia.
Father made food provisions for the road by making a large pot of beans. He also bought dry tobacco leaves, which he traded for rice and vegetables. He was the envy of the whole wagon of people, who admired him for his anticipation of the requirements for the duration of the trip by train. Our Christmas was celebrated on the train with beans, being our main dish and kipiatok, which was supplied at the station.
When the train stopped, a soldier in a Russian uniform came close to our open door and speaking in perfect Polish said that he was forced to join the Russian army and now wanted to escape with us. Men and women asked him to quickly jump in before he was seen by the enemy. Men piled up a few sets of civilian clothes and told him to change as quickly as possible. He was hidden behind a long bench with all the luggage in front, and was told to be as quiet as a mouse until the train was on its way. The train was delayed by Russian soldiers who were looking for him. They asked us if we saw the missing soldier but we told them that we did not see anyone in our area. It worked! My father gave him some beans and other people were glad to share some of their food as well. The man escaped with us and probably joined the Polish army that was being organized in Russia to fight the Germans when they invaded.
Transfer to Uzbekistan
The train stopped in Bukhara and buses came to take us to Wabkent, Uzbekistan where we were divided into separate groups to be transferred to different locations organized for our temporary stay. The climate there was mild, but the soil looked white because it contained salt crystals and calcium. The few visible trees we saw appeared surrealistically warped because of the lack of minerals in the soil.
A Uzbek man with his horse and buggy was waiting for us to arrive on December 31st 1941. He took my father, my sister and I to a village called Yangi Yull, our temporary accommodation in a clay complex with a courtyard and five surrounding units. All five units were already occupied, but there was one remaining available room on the top of the roof. It was the only spot available, so we had no choice and claimed it immediately. The only access to the room was a ladder, but we did not care, relieved to be sheltered from the elements.
The courtyard provided protected private access to all of the units. There was a Polish family in one of the units, with the rest occupied by Uzbek families. Across the yard lived an old Uzbek man with his young daughter. His beautiful daughter would wake up every morning; wash her long pitch-black hair, rapidly pleat six braids that would then hang down below her belt, topped off with a flat embroidered pill box-like hat, which fit comfortably around her head. As the Uzbek girl would make breakfast for her father and herself, she would look up to us smiling, displaying her radiant white teeth.
All the cooking was done on an outdoor brick and clay stove with an oven underneath. Uzbek females wore long cotton pants with a dress or skirt on the outside hanging down below the knees, which was the typical style in Asian countries at the time.
After this long journey, we all had a good rest. When we woke up, father had left to find a job, for he had the three of us to support and he was obligated to pay 10% of any income earned to the KGB. On January 2nd 1942, two days after our arrival, father got a job working on a cotton field for a few rubles, a pound or two of wheat grains and a bottle of cotton oil. We would take the wheat to a stone grinder, which would produce flour with sand mixed in it. Our father’s advice was to not chew the pancakes or noodles we cooked, but rather swallow them and let the stomach take care of the sand.
Two days later a curious Uzbek man came upstairs to talk to my father. Mary and I were there standing and listening to his broken Russian language, asking how we liked Uzbekistan. Father said that he didn’t have an opinion yet but said we were satisfied. The Uzbek liked both of us girls and said he would like to buy Mary, who at that time had blonde hair and blue eyes. He offered two cows in exchange for my sister, but Father rubbed his chin and after a few seconds, pretending to be well informed about the trade, said he wanted ten cows. The embarrassed man looked at my father with suspicion, said good-bye and left never coming back again to bargain.
We children had a lot of free time, so when noticing a large white hill in the distance, we wondered about its significance. Five of us decided to examine it so we walked the distance, and climbed the hill up onto the plateau where we saw branches embedded in the ground with all kinds of colourful plates and bowls fastened to their tops.
At this moment, an Uzbek boy ran up and informed us that the hill was a burial ground for the community and we were not allowed to be up there. He also said that there was a curse attached to it for foreign people and that anybody who would violate the rule would die in two years. We took this earnest news as a fact and awaited our deaths.
Father knew another family in the vicinity, a Polish judge with his wife, son and daughter. The Bertlitzowie family were very good friends of ours. My father would often go and discuss politics with the father even though he was not well. They had a good friendship, but unfortunately Mr.Bertlitzowicz died early and his wife, being completely devastated, stayed away from the public. Although father would drop in to see them, they remained out of sight most of the time.