Irena (Chojnacka) KUS

Irena was 11 years old when she was deported to Siberia with her parents, Franciszek and Janina (nee Juszczewska), and three brothers: Mieczyslaw, Edward, and Julian.. 

Franciszek joined the Polish 2nd Corps and fought in the Italian Campaign.

Mieczyslaw joined the Polish Air Force in the UK and served in 304 Squadron.. 

Edward went to Officer Cadet School in the Middle East, then joined the Polish 1st Armoured Division and served in the European Campaign, 

Her future husband, Tadeusz Kus was an Air Force cadet in the Middle East and in the UK.  

 

Irena, Julian, and their mother spent 6 years in  Masindi, in East Africa, before joining the rest of the family in the UK. The family later emigrated to Canada.

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SUMMER 1939

 

It was a beautiful summer on my parents' farm in the town of Radziwillow, in south-eastern Poland. It was September, and I had a carefree youngster's life. I had just turned 11 years old last July and was waiting impatiently for the start of my fifth grade school year. Unfortunately, the events that took place during this month completely changed the direction of my life.

 

Early that summer, social gatherings with my friends brought extreme anxiety. Walking home with my brothers from visiting our neighbors, the words "War" and "Germany" were constantly repeated.  September 1st was when it all started.

 

The new school term was preceded by a mass and when we were retuning home from school that first day, we were talking of nothing else but war, the reality of which was soon confirmed by an announcement on our new Telefunken radio.  "Attention, Air Raid Approaching." "What is going on, and what is an Air Raid?", I thought. I did not understand, but I knew something was different and wrong, and listening to the grown-ups soon confirmed that something was indeed wrong.

The war with Germany did not affect us much; I remember only one particular raid when we were forced to hide under the trees. I saw several planes drop bombs. We thought the Germans must be very close, and so we hid inside the underground potato dugout. I was scared to go there because of the large number of frogs inside and in the fields. Another time, while running home through the forest with my friend Irena Zych, I heard a sound of airplanes and a terrific explosion to the south of us. We were told that an ammunition dump in Brody was blown up.

Shortly after the breakout of the war, we witnessed a constant flow of refugees from western Poland. One day we went to our railway station to pick up one family that was to stay with us. This family of four, a mother with three children carne from Bydgoszcz, their name was Przybylak. The oldest child was a boy that was my age. He had two younger sisters and their father was, of course, in the army. Their stay with us was rather short and they supposedly returned to Bydgoszcz shortly after the Russians carne.

At about the same time, my mother's sister, Aunt Wanda, arrived from with her only son; her husband had stayed behind. We also had one other sister of mother’s with us; Aunt Fela, who had been staying with us for the past few years.

 

Towards the end of September, another tragedy occurred when the Soviet Union stabbed Poland in the back and grabbed the eastern part of the country. We stood by the roadside and observed long columns of Russian soldiers passing by. Some of them entered our house and asked for bread.

 

In school, the system suddenly changed, they introduced compulsory Russian language and replaced all non-trustworthy teachers with their own. Life on the farm turned into constant worry. News of some attacks by local Ukrainians circulated, and some of them "visited" us and "removed" our cows and horses. Our new radio was also taken by them for "school use," they said.

 

My older brothers, Mieczyslaw (aka Michal) and Edward were still continuing their high school education in Brody. Autumn turned into winter, and the rule of the invaders was beginning to be felt. Christmas of 1939 had come and gone, without the Christmas tree, of course, and without many other items as well.

 

Aunt Wanda, her little son Wiesio, and I, took daily walks. Sometimes my younger brother joined us in this routine. The year 1940 stared out extremely cold and my parents stocked the stove well for the night. The result was almost tragic. We almost all died from carbon monoxide poisoning that night, and if it was not for my brother Julian's "nature calling," we probably would have all died. As it happened, we all staggered out of bed falling over ourselves, and I heard mother screaming, "Open all the windows and doors!". Cold air rushed in and slowly we all carne to, with dogs jumping all over us. They must have come in when the doors were open. There was a lot of coughing and vomiting that night, and we had some strong coffee and went back to bed.

 

Cold weather continued, and February arrived with more worries about renewed attacks on Polish settlers by native Ukrainians. Our fathers organized security patrols and some of the families even attempted to flee to Romania, but I think that eventually nothing carne of it.

 

FEBRUARY 10, 1940

 

Early in the morning on February 10th, around 6 am, loud knocks on the door woke everybody. Mother was about to get up at that time anyway, to send Michal and Edward to school, since they traveled to Brody daily by train. She opened the door and Soviet Soldiers forced their way in.

 

We were informed that the order had been issued for our removal. My dad, in his pyjamas, was kept under guard with a rifle painting at him. We were told to get ready and leave the house with drawn sleds in half an hour. Where to? We did not know and they did not tell us. Scared as we were, we kids were sitting on our beds half-awake and staring. In the meantime, mother dressed all of us in double clothing and threw anything of value into a large trunk.

 

One of the guards whispered to mother to take anything that could be sold, and same bread. Fortunately, we had freshly baked bread and a milk can packed full of salt pork, and we took these with us.

 

After a while, they released my father and allowed him to help us pack. After half an hour, we were all on the sleds and on the way to the railway station. As we left, I heard our dog barking since it was being tied up on a chain. It was probably shot by the soldiers after we left.

 

Mother kept saying that she had already been in Russia once during the 1st World War and had managed to return, so there was no reason to believe we would not return this time too. Why did we not all perish that terrible night from the carbon monoxide poisoning? However, our destiny turned out to be very different from the thoughts we had at that time.

 

On the way to the railway  station,  I had noticed  a lot  of other  sleds heading in the same        direction. I recognized our neighbours: the Langners, Kotlarz, Jankowski, and many other families - all taken by force. At the railway station, long lines of freight cars with chimneystacks awaited us. The interior of these cars had wall-to-wall double deck benches and a hole through the floor in the center to serve as a washroom. We were forced inside these cars by the Russian guards until there was no more room to stand and the doors were shut with a loud bang and were bolted on the outside by the guards.

 

Inside, it was dark and cramped, with absolutely no room to move. People cried and prayed. They kept us in those locked cars at the station under guard for three days, allowing only an occasional exit to relieve ourselves under guard, of course, and sometimes delivering hot water to each car. Our bread taken with us from the farm was just about finished and what now?

 

We found out that our train was now all filled up and the military now proceeded to check each car to see that no one had escaped. One boy from our car did slip out and went to see our parish priest, Reverend Brodecki. He did, however, return to his family who were in our car before the train moved out.

 

With us, in the same car, were mom's two sisters, Aunt Fela and Aunt Wanda, with her little boy. During our thre- day stay at the station, Aunt Wanda was constantly demanding release, claiming that she was from Gdynia and was only visiting here. Eventually, and just before the train pulled out from the station, they did let her go and she went to stay with people she knew in Radziwillow.

 

She did not stay there very long, however, and after a while, they knocked on her door as well and told her to get ready to be shipped back to Gdynia. Instead of Gdynia, she ended up behind the Ural mountains.

 

FEBRUARY 13th 1940

 

After three days at the station in Radziwillow, the train finally moved into the unknown and prayers filled the car. Our first stop was at Zdolbunow, north of Radziwillow and close to the pre-war Polish­ Russian border. We changed trains to the wide gauge rail and were loaded into the new cattle cars in a hurry. My parents were counting on somehow being able to get in touch with my mother' s older sister, Zofia and her fa.miły, who happened to be living in Zdolbunow at the time. Soon after they locked us up, we heard someone calling us from outside. This was Jadzia, the oldest daughter of Zofia. She managed to pass some money to us when the guard was not looking. She was brave to do it, as there were many guards around. The train started moving and we knew we were going east, deep into Russia. As soon as we passed the town of

 

Shepetowka, on the Russian side of the pre-war border, there was no doubt any more. We had resigned ourselves to God's will. Religious songs and prayers were heard every day.

 

During some stops along the way, we found out who else from the people we knew, were being deported. It was a difficult and long jorney. We passed Moscow during the night, and nobody knew exactly where they were taking us. We tried to make contact with local people at one stop, through the only (small) window in the car. Those people themselves were deported sometime before for whatever "crime" they cooked up against them and their only response to our questioning was "PRYWYKNIESZ" which means: you will get used to it.

 

March arrived, and we arrived in Siberia, somewhere between the towns of Kirov and Kotlas. We were unloaded and taken under guard to a small camp of log barracks that were filthy and bug infested. Each family was allocated a small space and only a sheet or a blanket was used as dividers between families.

 

There was another camp of dep01tees not very far from us, on the other side of the forest.  My friend, Alina Jankowska, and I used to visit each other.  I remember that these walks through the forest were quite an adventure, since we were scared of all the wild animals around us.

 

We did not stay there very long, since families with four children or more were transported to another camp called Krystoforof near Oparino, at the end of the railway line in the middle of a dense forest. Here we were kept until our release in the autumn of 1941. The camp consisted of long log barracks, a communal kitchen, a guard house, camp commandant quarters, and a watch tower. We were given one room to share with another family and it was tight and uncomfortable, but somehow we managed.

 

Our family:     

My parents, Franciszek Chojnacki and Janina (Juszczewska) Chojnacka

Mieczysław                    15 years old

Edward                           14 years old

Irena                               12 years old

Julian                               8 years old

Aunt Fela (Felicia Juszczewska) - 28 years old

 

Another family:      Stefan and Maria Kucieba with four children: Jurek, Danusia, Tolek, and baby Krzysio who was bom on the way to exile and who later died in Teheran

This was the beginning of our hardships, hard life, hard forced labour, and starvation. All able-bodied men were sent to work in the forest, cutting down trees, transporting them to the railway line, and loading them on flat cars. Women built additional log barracks, and children were sent to school. lt was here that I learned Russian and became fluent.

 

Aunt Fela worked in the kindergarten, since she was good with children. Michal worked as a "marker" and record-keeper in the forest. Edward refused to go to Russian school, so they collected all these "refuseniks" and sent them away to harvest the hay in the swamps deep in the forest. He got sick while working there, so they gave him a horse and told him to ride back to the camp. On the way back, he had a run-in with a bear, who must have been a friendly bear because he let Edward go unharmed. I remember that he returned with a very high fever  and was in bed for a long time. I used to go into the forest to pick wild strawberries for him.

 

To supplement the food we were receiving, it was necessary for us to pick wild mushrooms and berries in the forest. Berries were great, especially when mother used them to make pierogi, whenever we had some flour available. With mushrooms it was a different story, as one had to be extra careful not to pick poisonous ones. I remember that one family almost died from eating poisonous mushrooms. We were now losing more and more of the things we brought with us, since we were exchanging them for food, just trying to stay alive.

 

Aunt Fela managed to do some beautiful embroidery on Russian blouses for which she was given food, and this helped too.

 

For us it was a pleasure to do the mushroom or berry picking, but sometimes someone got lost in this dense forest. When that happened, the bell would toll to let lost people know in which direction to go.

 

Over one year had already gone by since we arrived, and in that time, a sizable cemetery was already established. It started with the youngest and the elderly, followed by everybody else. No one was immune to death.

 

One particular case remains in my mind. Opposite our room partition were other families. One of these were Mr. & Mrs. Kociuba with their three daughters: Czesia, Wanda, and Jadzia. The other couple had five children. I do not remember their names, but what I do remember, is that the mother suddenly died and the father had difficulty looking after all his children. So the authorities had two of the kids (teenagers) taken to be "Russified” and effectively lost. There were lots of other families with similar histories.

 

My father was arrested and jailed after one of his escapades to the village to trade our goods for food. He was, however, released the next day. I myself took part in these trips for milk and bread.  I still remember how I had waited impatiently for the leftover milk in a can, and there were times when there was nothing left.

 

For us children, the summer was wonderful, daylight stretched into midnight, and there was no end to our outside play. Anyway, who would want to go to sleep early and fight with the bed bugs?

 

When winter carne, it was very cold, but even this did not stop us from sleigh rides in the snow. Taking turns, we wore each other's winter boots called "valanki" which were made of camel hair and were ideal for those winters. (They were probably the only good things Russians have ever made.)

 

There was a communal bath called "bania" (a steam bath), and taking it in winter usually ended with pneumonia. Despite everything, I must say that I enjoyed going to school there. There were a few Russian girls attending, and I helped them with their schoolwork. My work at the end of the school year carne out all "Otliczno" (excellent), and I was proud of it.

 

Christmas 1940 carne and we children tried to organize Santa Claus, but the authorities did not allow us. Instead, they introduced what they called "Diet Moroz" (Father Frost) who distributed some candies to children, some of whom performed on stage and even danced our Krakowiak. We had lots of fun during this time.

 

The summer of 1941 was ending. The men continued their work in the forest and mother used to send me tp Michal with a pot of soup. One day I tripped on a tree stump and spilled all the soup. I felt sorry for Michal, who had to go hungry all day. With the lack of vitamins, sicknesses began to spread, especially the one that affected vision at night. We called it "chicken blindness."

SEPTEMBER 1941

The weather turned out very nice in September of that year. There was news all around us and the air seemed full of it. On Sunday afternoons, we would all go into the forest, and there were small groups of elders that were discussing things between themselves and it all looked very interesting.

Eventually, we were all called to assemble and the commandant carne out and informed us that Germans, who were advancing very fast, had attacked the Soviet Union; Stalin needed all the help he could get.

A Polish army was being formed somewhere in the south of Russia and we were free to go, but no help could be given to us.  We were on our own.

In some of the camps, this information was not given. From then on, all the available time was taken for planning and organizing; a decision was made to go south as soon as possible, before winter set in. The problem was transportation. We were located at the end of a single raił line, and only occasionally, a single freight train was there. We needed one now in order to get to the nearest town. We waited and waited along with many other families until finally, one car showed up and we managed to squeeze in and move out.

When we arrived at the Oparino station, we were surprised to see some families from the previous camp; the Jankowski and Kotlarz families were already there. Now the priority for our group was to catch a train heading south, or rather, east behind the Ural mountains, since the front was getting closer.

All the trains and whatever food that we found at train stations, were reserved for the army, so we were forced to wait, and wait, usually in the open. It was a nightmare; people were stepping over us, and at night, stealing whatever they could. There was no food available, the only thing that we were available to get was boiled water, for which it was necessary to stand in never-ending lines.

Sometimes a passenger train carne through, but no one knew its destination. At other times when our train stopped, some of our people went in search of food. Occasionally, some of them were left behind when our train left the station. These stragglers tried to run after it.  Some of the people left behind caught up with it, and others never did.

Our mother was once left behind, but fortunately, she rejoined us at one of the stations further south; I was really worried about her. Once, the train stopped in a fields full of big ripe squashes, ready to be picked. Hunger forced all of us out to pick them.  As we did so, the train started to move, and everybody scrambled to board it on the run. Again, some made it, and some did not. This happened somewhere further south, on the east side of the Ural mountains, in a somewhat warmer climate. We reached the Ural mountains after a long and tedious ride. They are beautiful mountains with lots of tunnels through them.

In Cheliabynsk, two of us decided to run to a market and made it back in time.

Everywhere we stopped, we saw released families. They looked the same as us, and we were in a pitiful state, heading south towards the area where the Polish army was being assembled. These transports were ideal breeding grounds for all kinds of diseases that were carried mainly by lice. Michal and Edward caught jaundice and fortunately came out of it all right. Typhoid also missed us.

 

We were heading towards the Engels-Saratov area. Germans heading in the opposite direction now populated this countryside. We took one of their houses and shared it with another family on a state farm near Engels. Poverty was everywhere. Older boys were immediately sent to tractor driver school and Michal was one of them. We, the younger children, busied ourselves with digging out whatever was left in the ground ,like potatoes, beets, and carrots. Winter was approaching, which meant we had to retrieve anything in the ground that we could either eat or burn to heat our houses. We also picked frozen potatoes for pancakes. Mother managed to get frost-bitten fingers from grating them for pancakes.

 

Here we were invaded be a multitude of lice. I somehow managed to save my pigtails but there was no end to cleaning my hair.

 

My main preoccupation was to mend my father's shirts, which were completely wrn out. The Russian soldiers were a sorry sight.  Stopping overnight in our village, they slept on straw, they ate our food, and walked barefoot to the front to fight the Germans, poor guys.

JANUARY 1942

 

Winter was in full bloom, Christmas carne and produced a depressing atmosphere all over.

News carne that the Polish army was being formed in nearby Takishchev. Some men went there to investigate and returned with news, some good, some bad. Recruitment was limited to only three from our family, that was my father, Michal, and with some difficulty, Edward, due to his being under-age. Generally, very poor conditions existed in those assembly points, but there was some limited help from England.

 

After a while, my mother and Mrs. Kotlarz, with whom we shared this small house, decided to go there themselves and returned with one of the officers to see what could be done to help us. Returning, they had to go over deep snowdrifts, occasionally encountering packs of wolves.

 

The officer surveyed the situation, took a census of all the Polish families living in the village, and advised us to go to the Tashkent area, where the larger army groupings were. When we arrived there, we were first disinfected, washed, and fed from the army kitchen. Later, we were transported further south to "Guzar", "Kermine". It was a sad- looking place with a continuous inflow of army dependents, most of them orphans.

 

My father joined the army, and Michal and Edward also joined. Julian was taken into the orphanage and I joined the Youth Corps. Here we had army protection, and a piece of bread. However, all dependents were temporarily located in clay Uzbek huts and preparations were made for transports to Persia (Iran).

 

Guzar was a valley of death. Spring brought with it starvation and disease. Quarantine of Typhoid-infected people was introduced; they were isolated from others in freight cars on the siding. For us, the so-called "healthy" or able-bodied people, tents were erected. A school was immediately organized.  We assembled in groups, passed the latest news between us, and songs were heard around us. We thanked God for this blessing.

 

The Women's Auxiliary tents were close by,  That's where my Aunt Fela was. I visited her often. All of our family was broken up, but we were all alive. Every day we saw carts loaded with bodies (the Typhoid victims). We kept wondering if one of our family or friends was on them.

 

Somehow, miraculously, General Anders was able to arrange an evacuation of our army to Persia, but the army would not hear of it if their dependents were not allowed to go. They finally agreed, and this is how we managed to escape. We were lucky, because many families did not make it, and some eventually returned to Poland after the war.

 

More transports were organized, this time to the Krasnowodsk port on the Russian side of

the Caspian Sea.. We were loaded on decks of old oil barges and sailed to the port of Pahlevi, in Persia. We all traveled separately, but at least we were under the protection of the army and the British government.

 

Ships were overloaded, and I recognized Aunt Fela on one them. She was sitting on top of some belongings, scattered here and there. The ships were old and rusty, but somehow we made it! We were FREE!  Pahlevi, Persia, was for us a new world compared to Russia, a heaven; lots of delicious dates to eat.

 

We assembled on a sandy beach and another disinfecting was organized; all old lice infested clothes and hair was burned. This is where I lost my braids. After several of these transit camps, we were loaded on trucks and transported to Teheran.

 

The trip to Teheran was rather difficult: high mountains, lots of serpentines, and ravines. The drivers were reckless and there were cases where people fell off the edges with the trucks.

 

EASTER 1942

 

The holidays were celebrated in Teheran, with thanksgiving for our deliverance. We lived in old army barracks, and when these were filled, a whole forest of tents was erected behind the walls.

 

New transports arrived every day, and I kept searching for my family. I found mother, then Julian, and later Edward, who was with boys of the Youth Corps located some distance away from us in the military port. Later, we found out that father and Michal had already been shipped to somewhere in Iraq for military training. Eventually, my father ended up in Italy. Michal joined the Air Force in England. Edward joined the Army Cadets school in Palestine, and later joined the Air Force in England.

 

Mother had rounded up whatever was left of our family, which was herself, me, Julian, and Aunt Wanda, who also managed to escape, less her little boy, Wiesio, who died in exile. Along with thousands of others in a similar situation, we were all shipped to Masindi in Uganda, for the duration of the war.   The family were all reunited in England in 1948.

 

Aunt Wanda joined us in Masindi and, after the war, she returned to Poland-(her husband was still alive in Gdynia). Shortly after that, he died.

 

Aunt Fela joined the Women’s Auxiliary of the Polish 2nd Corps and, after the war, she married and settled in England.

 

Irena Kus-Lach-Chojnacka

February 1995