Life in the Soviet Paradise: The story of the family of Jan Fedorowicz as told to his son Zbigniew Jan Fedorowicz
Stolpin is not a very big place, located about 50 km from Lwow. The population is mostly Ukrainian with some Belorus. The Polish people were in the minority and their properties, ours included, were located in between two Ukrainian villages.
There were eight in our family; our parents and the six children who were, oldest to youngest: Wladek, Anka, Staszek, me (Zbyszek), Genia and Stefka. My father, Jan, spent most of his time working our farm but he was also a good tailor. My mother, Franciszka, spent her time taking care of the housework, gardening, tending the farm animals and of course, all of the children.
The Ukrainian people were in charge of the village. They owned the few shops there and had their own church and recreation center. They used the recreation center for many things, including the training of the "Partezan," which I was unaware of until later. There were also two Jewish families living in our village and they owned their own shops there. The Polish people did not have any shops, churches or recreation centers there; we had to go to the nearest town, Toporow, which was about 5 km from our village. When I was a young boy I never noticed the hatred between the Polish and Ukrainian people. I first went to school in Stolpin and had many friends that were Ukrainian. We played together most every day and I even spent time at their houses. The school that I attended in Stolpin was open plan, which means that there were several grades being taught together in one classroom. If you wanted to go on to high school and university you had to go to the school in Toporow. I remember my first day at school in Toporow. I felt very strange because I didn't know anyone there; none of my friends from Stolpin were there. The feeling didn't last too long. I had spent only a few days in the school when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. In this year, my brother Staszek was in his second year of high school in the city of Brody where he lived with our aunt, mother's sister.
It was a very beautiful day. I was playing outside when suddenly I heard a loud noise. I looked up to see a sky full of airplanes and after about 10 minutes we heard the first bombs being dropped on the city of Lwow. The bombing lasted for a long time and all the Polish people were very scared.
In a week or so we heard that the Soviet Red Army was coming to help us but we now know what kind of help they wanted to give us. They crossed the border on the 17th of September and very soon after making contact with the Polish army they started making arrests and taking away their weapons. It all happened so fast that the Polish army did not have time to fight them.
During this time, the Ukrainians took over all the Polish institutions and put their own people in charge. This however did not last very long because the Soviets told them that it was not to be the Ukraine but the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians were very disappointed with this so they turned to the German army for help; they were hoping that the Germans would help them create an independent Ukraine.
February 10, 1940
On the 9th of February the authorities in Stolpin gave the order that everyone who owned two horses had to take a sleigh to Radziechow but they did not tell us why. We soon learned the reason as each sleigh returned carrying a full load of Soviet soldiers. We all wondered why the soldiers were brought here but early the next morning we discovered the purpose of their arrival.
We were having a very hard winter. The temperature was between -30 C and -40 C but we slept well in our nice, warm house. This was to be our last comfortable night, our last night in our own house, and most of all, and our last night as free people. The loud knock at the door woke us up. Outside the door we could hear people talking and dogs barking. It was very early and the stars in the sky were reflected on the snow-covered ground. Our father opened the door and that is when we saw the Soviet soldier, coming into our house with his bayonet fixed on his rifle and along with him came two local people that we knew, one Jewish man and one Ukrainian man. The Soviet soldier gave us orders that we had to pack our things and be ready to leave in half an hour. The two local men helped pack up our things, clean and dirty, clothes and dishes; everything went in together. We were also allowed to take as much food as we could so we took what we had and as we were leaving one of the men put a bag of potatoes on the sleigh but they froze very quickly.
The Soviet soldier was standing at the door during all of this but he didn't speak to us, he just made sure that no one escaped. When we asked where we were going they told us it was to Radziechow and that we would be able to come back in a few days. When we loaded onto the sleigh the Jewish man gave us two big coats from our house to cover ourselves with. As we were leaving everyone felt very sad and almost everyone was crying. I remember even our dog was howling as though he knew we were never coming back. The dogs were all barking and howling as if they were saying goodbye to us.
We were taken to the local school where the other families had been taken and we had to wait a few hours until all the families were brought in to the school. Everyone was sitting there waiting, the children were crying and lots of people were complaining but mostly people were just frightened. Every few minutes the doors would open and another family would be pushed in and this was kept up until they had taken all the families to the school. The majority of the families were Polish but there were a few that were Ukrainian.
There were people of all different ages; even sick and elderly people were taken from their homes and brought to the school. Once every family had been collected, they put everyone back on the sleighs and took us to the railway station. It was already evening when we arrived at the station at Zloczow and everyone was frozen to the bone. When we arrived we noticed a row of boxcars on the rails and that, we soon discovered, was to be our ride. They loaded all of us and our belongings into the boxcars and each one was packed as full as possible. Inside the boxcars there were two wide, wooden benches on either side, one lower and one higher up for sleeping and in the middle of the car there was an iron wood-stove for heating. There was a fire burning in the stove when we entered the boxcar but it didn't help much as we were all still very cold.
When they were loading us into the boxcars it went very fast. They pushed people in with their belongings then the doors were closed and locked from the outside. Once the cars were all full and locked the train started to move down the tracks. Everyone was so tired that most people fell asleep but as there wasn't much room, a lot of people went to sleep sitting up. Once we started to move, I remember getting into one of the top benches and watching out a small window until it got dark then I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was daylight outside but the window was coated in frost and I couldn't see out. I remember feeling very cold and hungry. I tried to figure out why all this had happened but I was too young to understand. The train kept going that day until we reached Rowno at the Polish border and then the train stopped. We were all wondering just what was going to happen now. We could hear a lot of voices and noise outside the train and through the gaps we could see the soldiers running around. We heard another train of boxcars pulling up beside our train and when we opened the door we saw that the boxcar doors on the new train were open and lined up with the open doors of our boxcars. There were lots of soldiers standing guard near the doors to make sure no one escaped during the reloading into the new boxcars. These were from the Soviet Union, a little larger than the other boxcars but they were the same on the inside. The one exception was that there was a hole cut in the floor as a temporary toilet.
Again, I climbed up on the top bench and tried to look out the window to see where we were going. As soon as everyone was loaded the doors were closed and locked again and the train began to move. It was so sudden that people were thrown all around inside the boxcar. It was also the first time we all realized that we were leaving Poland. This was the beginning of our journey to the Soviet paradise. It was to be a very long and hard journey; we were on the train for 4 weeks. The cold, hunger and lack of sleep took its toll on everyone and by the end of the journey we were completely exhausted with little or no hope left.
Inside the boxcars it was very dark and cold and there was never enough wood to burn in the stove to keep us all warm. There were old people, young children and poor people. Some people had lice and it spread throughout the car so that everyone ended up with it.
Whenever the train stopped the soldiers would open the door and take two people out to get water. They would then be put back in and the doors locked again. From time to time they would give us warm soup or a few loaves of bread but not very often so we had to live on what little food we had brought with us. The poorer people on the train didn't have anything to bring with them so they were slowly dying from lack of food.
When someone died the soldiers would throw the body out, usually while the train was still moving, and just leave it. The conditions in the boxcar got worse as the trip went on and with no water to bathe or clean ourselves, everyone was beginning to smell and the lice problem was really bad. By the time our journey was almost over, almost everyone had lost their will to live.
Finally the train stopped at a station in Kotlas and everyone was told to get out. People were happy to finally be out and getting fresh air. Kotlas was a small town on the left side of the river Dwina (Droina) in the Soviet Union. The river was frozen and covered in a blanket of snow and was used as a road for the sleighs. They moved us from the boxcars to the sleighs. First the luggage was loaded, then the women and children. There was no room for the men so they had to walk behind the sleighs, each of which was pulled by only one horse. We followed the river for about 100 km until we reached Permogorskaja Zapadin, our destination, which became our new home sweet home.
This place was completely desolate. We were cut off from the rest of the world and it was not a place from which we could easily escape. On one side of us there was a wide river and on the other side a huge forest full of wild animals such as bears and wolves. This is where they built the labor camp for the people brought from various countries.
The camp had three very big wooden barracks, a canteen with tables for people to eat at, a public bathroom (banea), a police office and jail and a few small wooden shacks which they used for various things like selling bread and coupons for the other food. There was one Soviet family living there along with one cow and two horses that they had to look after for the camp. We were settled in the barracks.
Our barrack was very big and built of wood planks but there were big gaps between the planks and we could see frost coming through them. There was a row of four or five wood burning stoves in the middle of the room but even if they were all burning at the same time it was still very cold. Along each side of the wall there were iron beds. When we arrived there it was after midnight already and they gave us some bread but it was already stale and mouldy and smelled bad. We were very hungry but still we could not eat the bread because it was so terrible. After such a good supper, we made our beds and went to sleep. Having spent four weeks in the cramped boxcars we could finally lay down to sleep fully stretched out. If only there were no lice we could say that we had a very nice night.
However we didn't sleep for very long because the police came early in the morning and woke us up. They told every man and woman to get ready to go to work. Here they had their first problem with us because we told them that our mother wouldn't go to work because she wasn't well. After a long argument they sent her to the doctor and he gave her an excuse slip saying that she was exempt because she had a temperature. In the Soviet Union you have to go to work no matter how sick you are unless you have a temperature. We are not sure how our mom got the temperature; maybe she was just so scared that it went up.
A little later in the week we had another problem with the police. They ordered all of the children to be taken to school and that's when I told them that I was not going to their Soviet school. It was located on the other side of the river and the children who were taken to school stayed there for the whole term and were not allowed to go back to their parents. The police wanted me to go and they were threatening me with stories of sending me to jail or even shooting me if I did not go. They were coming every day to try to get me but when I saw them coming I would hide under the bed or out in the bush. Finally they decided to give up and I got to stay.
My decision not to go to school turned out to be a very good one because I was the one who was always standing in line to get coupons for the food. The food supply was short and if you didn't get in line soon enough you didn't get anything at all.
In the beginning they told us that working people would get 500 grams of bread each day and the children and non-working people would get 200gms. The working people usually got soup and the others, well, it just depended on what was leftover; sometimes you might get something and other times not.
In the canteen they prepared hot food like soup from fish heads, oat soup, barley soup or porridge and there was very little, not enough for everyone. In order to get this hot food you had to go on the day before to buy coupons which they were selling in one of the wooden shacks. Sometimes people would go in the evening to wait through the night for morning so that they could get some coupons because only a few were sold. Once in a while, you would wait all night in front of the window and in the morning you would find out that they were selling them somewhere else. They were doing this on purpose, of course. Then we would have to run around and try to find out where they were selling them and when we would finally find out, it was too late as they would already be sold out.
In our barracks there were people of all ages, sick and healthy people and some disabled people. One family had two children, both disabled. One of them couldn't even walk and had to be carried everywhere. They were both taken away by the soldiers, to the hospital we were told, but later we heard that they were both killed. There was an elderly couple there, both very sick, and they both died within a few weeks of our arrival at the camp because they had no one to look after them.
One night I had to go out of our barrack and I saw a man lying there outside the door, dead. I had to walk past him and I was scared. It happened several times that a person would die and they would throw them out in the snow where they would lay until someone disposed of the body. That is how we started our new life in the Soviet paradise.
My father, Wladek and Anka went to work every day while Genia and Stefka were taken to school and my mother and I stayed behind in the barracks. My father and Wladek were working on the river; they had to push logs up onto the shore so that they could be tied together. The logs were then pushed down the river and out to sea where ships were waiting to load them up. Anka had a few different jobs during our time there but in the end she was boiling water for the people to take for personal use and sometimes I would help her by cutting the wood for the fire under the pot.
In the beginning, the work on the river was close to our camp so the workers could have their lunch in the canteen and at that time they would get their ration of bread. When the workers had finished their lunch, the non-working people could buy what was left of the food but there was not much of that so again you had to stand in line and try to be as close as possible to the front. The bread that we got in the beginning was hard like clay, smelled bad and was hard to eat but later on it got better and was easier to eat.
Our life was very sad; we were more and more hungry and kept getting weaker and weaker. In order for us to survive we had to do things that weren't always good, like cheating. I used to make my own food coupons from plywood or tin and I was never caught. I would sometimes steal food, like potatoes, from the fields. Sometimes I would go across the river to see the local Soviet people and exchange old clothes and other things we had brought with us from Poland for food to eat.
Once we received a food parcel from Poland from people who were living in our house. They had moved there from the west to escape the Germans. They wrote us a very nice letter explaining what they were doing there and wishing we would return as soon as possible to our house. This parcel was a big surprise because we never expected it simply because we did not know these people. A lot of families were getting parcels all the time from their families but we got only one and it was not from our family. In that parcel were several food items and one of them was a package of fatty bacon. This became our most precious gift. Mother tied a string around it and when she would make soup with potatoes she would dip the string-tied bacon in for half a minute then pull it out, dry it off, wrap it up and save it for next time. She did this for a long time until it was all gone.
The first winter there was very harsh for us. We were always cold and hungry because the delivery of food to our camp was so inadequate that we couldn't buy anything. One time they gave us dry, salted fish. We ate a little piece then had to drink about two litres of water each. It killed our hunger for a little while. From time to time they would bring different things to our camp to sell to us, like sugar cubes, sweets, buttons, needles or even vodka. We would buy whatever they would bring in. If it was sugar or sweets we would keep them to add to our hot water to drink but other things we would use to trade with the Soviet people across the river. We would buy as much vodka as we could, when it was available, because it was the best for trading. The local people would give up their last piece of bread for some vodka. This, for the most part, is what kept us alive.
One time only, I remember that they brought in a lot of bread and you could buy one kilogram per person but I kept going through the line again and again and bought a lot of bread for us. Unfortunately, the people who had no one to stand in line didn't get anything.
In March or April my father became ill with an ulcer. They took him to the hospital on the other side of the river. It wasn't a real hospital but a church that they used to store grain. In one corner they had put a few beds for a makeshift hospital. It was a very dirty and cold place.
Once when Stef was sick with a temperature the doctor prescribed for her a half liter of milk. I had to go to the Soviet woman who was looking after the cow to get this milk. I waited in her home while she milked the cow. When she brought in the milk, she took the cream off the top, poured half milk and half water into a container and this is what she gave me.
In the early spring they decided to move half the working people to the other camp where they were cutting trees. Among them were my uncle and his family. After the move we had a better chance of getting in the front of the line for the food coupons. We were also transferred to the other barrack which was better in that it was separated into different rooms making it much warmer but the bugs seemed to like the warmth so we had a problem with them coming in.
During the same time they also transferred our working people to a work area about 20 km further from our camp which meant that they had to stay there all week. They would work for six days and on the seventh day they would come back to the camp to their families. Sometimes I would visit my father while he was working there. There were two different routes I could take to get there; the longer way was easier as I could just follow the river, but the shortest way was to go up and through the forest which I did sometimes because there was always a chance of finding mushrooms or berries for us to eat. It was scary though because I knew there were dangerous animals there like bears and wolves but I never saw any because usually, during the day, they stayed deep in the forest.
Once when I was visiting my father, I went into the forest to explore a little bit and found a lot of mushrooms, the good ones, so I picked them and took them back to the camp with me. The next day I went back and a little deeper in the forest I found lots of cranberries so I picked them also. On the way back to camp there was a small store and as I passed by the owner came out and asked me where I had gotten the berries. When I told him, he asked me if I would pick them for him for his store and he would pay me as much as the working men. I did this for him and on the last day of the work week, when I finally returned to our camp with my father, I told my mother what I had been doing. The next week she went back with me and we both worked picking berries and we both got paid. We dried all the extra mushrooms so we could save them for later and we also dried what bread we had because we knew that our work wouldn't last forever.
During the summer they cleared the land around our camp and ploughed it up. They then gave each family a bucket of potatoes to plant so that in the fall we would have fresh potatoes to eat. Most families were very hungry and just ate their potatoes. We also ate our potatoes but first my mother cut off the small section with the shoots and we planted that part in the soil. We had our own little spot for our potatoes and the rest of the field was for the canteen. In the fall, when we went to dig up our potatoes, we would sneak into the main section and steal the potatoes from there, saving our own till the end.
When the Germans started the war with the Soviet Union in June 1941, the conditions in our camp worsened. We were even more short of food and everyone was even hungrier. It was so bad that some people died from starvation. This is when we started using the food that we had dried and saved.
Summers in this part of the Soviet Union are short and the winters have no end. Lack of warm clothes caused a lot of sickness throughout the camp. It was a sickness that caused blindness (actually, night blindness was caused by a lack of vitamin A, ed.), not completely though. During the day you could see just fine but when the sun went down everything went black and you couldn't see anything. I also got this sickness. I will never forget it. One day I was going to get water from the river (it was frozen over but there was a hole in the ice so we could get fresh water) and although it was daytime, evening was coming. By the time I got there the sun went down and everything went dark. I couldn't see anything but I knew that we still needed the water so I crawled on my hands and knees and felt my way around to the hole. I filled the bucket and then managed to get to camp safely. I never went out that late again. In our area the nights were always very bright with the stars, like daylight at night, but with this sickness it just all turned dark, like having a blanket pulled over your eyes.
It was early in the morning on the day that everyone was off of work when we were told to come to the recreation room for a meeting. We were not expecting good news at all so you can imagine our surprise when they told us that we were free and could do whatever we wanted. They told us that we were their friends and we would go together to fight the Germans. We were very happy; everyone felt so good that we all started singing the Polish national anthem.
However, the situation in the camp was terrible. There was less food than ever but they told us that this was because of the Germans. After a few days we had a visit from a delegation from the farm on the other side of the river. They came to us with a proposition: they wanted to mobilize people to work on their farms. They promised better pay, a better food supply and better conditions. However the bosses at the labor camp tried to stop us by offering the same thing because they also needed us to work for them. My father and other families decided to go to the farm to work.
When we got there they gave us a nice little wooden house but it was not completely finished yet and there still was some work that needed to be done on it. We learned that the people who lived in the house had been deported and were never able to finish building it. The house had only one big finished room which was used for everything; kitchen, living and bedroom. On the other side of the house was a big storage room divided by a corridor in between. In the storage room and attic we found a lot of wood and materials which we used for firewood.
My father and Wladek were working on the farm. They got good pay as promised and our food supply improved considerably. Here at last we could be rid of the lice. We knew that we wouldn't be staying on this farm very long because my father was planning to go to the Polish army, which had been created in the south of the Soviet Union, as soon as transportation could be arranged. In the meantime we were collecting food which we could use later on our journey to the south.
When we heard about that a boat from Archangelsk was coming, we packed our things and went down to the boat stop at the river. However the boat came and went without picking anyone up because it was full. They did tell us that another boat was on its way and that it was practically empty. We waited at the boat stop for another two days, hiding out in a little grain shack nearby, trying to stay out of the cold winter weather while we were waiting on the boat. On the third day, the boat arrived and took all of the waiting people to Kotlas where a train was supposed to be waiting for us.
Upon our arrival in Kotlas we found out that we were too late, that the train had already left and no one knew when the next one would come. We had to stay outside with our belongings because the inside of the waiting room was already full of other people. The winter was very harsh and cold but we had to stay there for a few days sleeping outside on our belongings.
One day I tried to get inside the station so I could take a little nap. I found a small place to squeeze into but it just happened to be next to a family that had a lice problem. The lice got on me so bad and were eating me alive that I went back out and never tried to get in there again.
After one week of waiting for the train and not knowing when another would come, we were completely exhausted. Then we got a proposition from the farm across the river. They wanted us to come over there to work, promising that when the train came they would let us know and take us back to the station straight away. My father organized a group of people who wanted to go and we went to the farm.
Once again we had a nice, warm room and once again we could clean ourselves up and get rid of the lice. Father, Wladek and Ann went to work every day at the farm. Genia and Stef stayed at home with mother while I wandered around the farm looking for food. I noticed that close to our home was a field where the cabbages were already cut and put into piles but there was a man keeping watch over them so that they would not get stolen. However, I managed to get a few of them. When the man was on the other side of the field, I grabbed two cabbages and ran home with them. The man was yelling and threatening me but he never caught me.
We found out later that the train we were waiting on had come and gone already but the farm people never told us about it. My father and the others were angry so they arranged their own transportation back across the river and we returned to the train station to wait. We had the waiting room to ourselves this time as there were no other people and we only had to wait one week for the train to arrive to take us.
The boxcar on this train was the same as before except that it had three levels of sleeping benches on each side. There was the same type of iron stove in the middle but it did not have a hole in the floor for a restroom. When someone had to go to the restroom while the train was moving, the doors would be opened and people would have to hold them by their clothes while they hung out the door to do their business.
Finally we were off to the south where the Polish army, and our freedom, was waiting for us. It was really crowded inside the boxcar with very little room to sleep. The only difference about this trip was that the door wasn't locked. When the train stopped, people usually jumped out to run into the bushes to do their business but they had to be very careful because sometimes the train only stopped for a minute or so and they could be left behind. Sometimes the stops would be longer but other times only a few minutes. The man driving the train would see the people getting off but he wouldn't wait for them. When he was ready to go he just left with or without them.
Our journey from Kotlas to Guzar, Uzbekistan, lasted six weeks and during this time we were given hot soup and bread only a few times. Those who had brought nothing of their own were very hungry. We were a little bit better prepared as we had brought the food we had saved up such as the dried mushrooms, bread, potatoes, flour and some shredded cabbage. It was not that much but due to the careful planning of our mother, it managed to last until the end of our journey.
Throughout the first three weeks of the trip it was very cold but then it gradually started to warm up and by the time we reached our destination, it was hot. During the trip I remember, one time, being very sleepy but there was really nowhere to lie down and sleep. I saw a narrow ledge that was bolted to the side of the boxcar so I climbed up and squeezed myself onto it and finally fell asleep. When I woke up I couldn't move, my clothes had frozen to the bolts and I was stuck, so I called for help and some people came to my rescue and pulled me down.
Another thing that happened which was funny, although not at the time, was that when the train started to go it always jerked and made people who were on the benches fall down. One time a man fell down and landed right in front of the stove. He grabbed onto it, by reflex, for support and burned himself.
At the larger stations the stops would usually be longer, sometimes all day. People would leave the train and approach the Soviet people to ask for or buy some food. One older man got off the train and was walking along the tracks looking for scraps of food that might have been thrown out. He had walked for a long way when the train started to move and he had to start running. His wife was hanging out of the boxcar, calling to him to run faster and he was trying but couldn't catch up. The train driver was laughing at this because he knew that he was only moving the train to the other set of tracks since they planned to be stopped all day but the wife was really scared because she thought that her husband was going to be left behind.
Our next stop was Samarkand, which was supposed to be our last stop, but they changed their minds for some unknown reason. It was a nice place. I got off the train and wandered around the town maybe to buy something but there was nothing there to buy so I went back to the train with nothing. We stayed there for three days before leaving for Guzar and this definitely was our last stop.
The trip from Kotlas to Guzar took six weeks and was very tiring. We were all quite exhausted and hungry so we were very happy when they told us that we had reached the last stop and to get off the train. It was extremely hot outside and since there were no trees to shade us we had to sit out in the hot sun on top of our luggage and wait for our transportation to arrive. This would then take us to our next temporary stop where we would stay until arrangements to allow us to leave the Soviet Union were made.
We had been sitting there waiting for over an hour when we saw a long line of donkeys being lead in our direction, followed by a line of camels behind them. We were told that this was our transportation. They packed our luggage onto the animals first and then we were put on them as well. I was put on top of a donkey with one of my younger sisters. When we asked them how far we were going, they told us about 20 km with the hook and usually the hook was much longer than the number they told us.
We started our journey before noon, passing through the small town of Guzar. Beyond the town we could see mountains in the distance. They were very beautiful and so white they looked as though they were made of white marble. The journey on the donkeys was very tiring because it was so hot and the sun was shining down on us. We were all sweating and still very hungry because they didn't give us anything to eat. I don't know who had it worse though, us on the donkeys or those on the camels.
When we asked again how far we were going we were told just to the edge of the mountains but once we got there we didn't stop. We went into the mountain range passing by one mountain after another with no sign of our destination. They kept telling us after each mountain that we would be there just after the next mountain again and again until it was midnight. Finally everyone was tired and fed up so we got off the animals and told them that we weren't going any further that night that we were going to stop and rest. They tried to talk us into going on by telling us that it wasn't much farther and that it was dangerous to stay where we were on account of the wild animals but we would not go. They didn't know what to do so they left us there, returning after half an hour.
They again told us that our stop was just on the other side of the mountain and that we would have a nice place to rest and food to eat. We heard dogs barking so we knew that this time they were probably telling the truth. And so it was, for in less than half an hour we reached a small village.
There we were given a nice, big room to sleep in and they brought everyone bread and tea. We all slept together in the school but they warned us not to go out at night because the dogs are running free and they are dangerous and might attack us. In the morning we received tea and bread again and we had to get back on the animals to continue our journey.
At about noon we arrived in another, bigger village where most of the people stayed behind while six families continued on. It was about midnight again when we arrived at our destination. All six families stayed in one big room. Everyone put their bedding along the wall on one side and this is where we were to stay for the time being. The building was built of clay which was both good and bad. It stayed cool inside while outside it was so hot but during a rain, pieces of clay would fall off.
My father went with the farm manager to get bread for us to eat. Within an hour they had returned with bread and a scale so that the bread could be weighed and everyone would receive the same amount, a 500gm portion. I didn't know that at the time and as I was sitting there watching them hand out the bread, I was so hungry that I sneaked a piece and put it under the blanket. When they got to the end they couldn't figure out why they were short one piece. The manager went back and brought in a replacement. I didn't tell anyone what I had done because I didn't want to get into trouble so I waited until everyone had gone to sleep to eat the extra piece. My brother Wladek was next to me and asked what I was eating. I told him to be quiet, broke off a piece of the bread and gave it to him. He was hungry like me so he didn't tell anyone either.
Once my father had made all the arrangements with the farm managers, he, Wladek and the men from the other families went back to Guzar to join the Polish army. That left only women and children on the farm. I was the oldest boy in the group so I got the job of bringing fresh water to the building. They gave me a donkey to carry the water but I had to look after it, making sure it had food and water and that no one stole it.
It was about 10 to 15 km to the water source, a small pond, and I had to go there sometimes twice a day depending on how much water was needed. The donkey had two wooden barrels for the water hanging on either side of him so he had to carry both barrels of water and me too. After we returned with the water I usually tied the donkey outside our building where he could eat the grass. One day I noticed a man trying to untie my donkey. I ran out and he told me that it was his donkey. I told him no, it was mine. He said that he would call the police so I replied "go ahead" and he left but never came back as he was only trying to steal it.
Before father left us for the army, he told us not to worry about anything as he had made all the necessary arrangements for our transportation out of the Soviet Union and that the Polish authorities in Dekhkanabad would look after us and let us know when it was time to go. We were happy staying on that farm because we knew that our father had taken care of things, would never forget us and that everything would be OK.
I did my job every day, bringing in the water, and I was also on the lookout for food because the rations that we were given were not enough. We were getting 200 gm of bread, one cup of flour, one cup of porridge, one glass of milk and sometimes a piece of cheese, per person. My mother would make small dumplings out of the flour and add a little milk to the water and that is what we ate. I liked it very much but I was always dreaming that I could have a little more.
God must have heard me for one day mother had made the dumplings and I was sitting there with my bowl, eating. It was raining hard outside and all of a sudden a piece of clay just fell into my bowl. You couldn't get it out because it quickly fell apart so I just stirred it up in there and ate it.
It was not the best there on the farm but we were happy because we knew that at any time we might get word from the Polish authorities that our transportation had arrived. We waited a very long time for this news and would not have heard anything at all if I had not gone to Dekhkanabad to inquire about it myself. There was a Jewish family on the farm and the father wanted to move his family to Dekhkanabad to live. He asked me if I would go there with him and he would pay me to take his belongings on my donkey. I agreed and we went there the next day. I went to the Polish authorities and asked about our transportation out of the Soviet Union. The man in charge there had come down here on the same transport as us and knew my father. When I asked him about the transportation he just slapped me in the face and told me to go back to the farm saying that he would let us know when it was time. I did find out however, from some of the other people there that two transports had already left. They also told me that if someone wanted to get out of the Soviet Union they would have to arrange transportation to Guzar themselves, with the authorities in Guzar taking care of the rest.
On my way back to the farm I met some Uzbeks who were taking supplies back to the farm. They had two donkeys but one of them was ill and couldn't go on. They asked me if I would carry the flour back to the farm on my donkey, so I did. Once we got there the manager gave me flour and bread as a reward. Mother was very happy when she saw what I had brought.
When I told our people what I had heard about the transportation out of the Soviet Union, everyone got very angry and started packing up their belongings to go to Dekhkanabad. Of course, first we had to arrange for transportation with the farm authorities. This took a few weeks but finally we got a few donkeys which took us into town. When we arrived in Dekhkanabad we went straight to the Polish authorities and put all of our belongings in the courtyard. Then we waited for the officials to come out and when they did they were rude to us and told us to leave immediately and return to the farm. We were all angry so we stayed put. They did not help us at all. We had to find our own food.
One or two days later they took all of the children, Ann, Genia and Stef included, to an orphanage. I didn't go because I didn't want to leave my mother alone. After a week or two, people started getting ill, coming down with dysentery or typhoid fever. We also got ill, first me, then Stef. They took us to the hospital where I had a bed next to the window and Stef was in the bed next to me. They were giving us medicine every day and a little bit of food every day. After a week or two I began to get better and felt that I could leave, so they let me go. While I was in the hospital with Stef, I had to feed her and make her take her medicine so when I left she was crying because she wanted to go too. They told me that if I wanted to take her I could do so the next day. This I did, pulling her out through the window. She was so weak that she couldn't walk and I had to carry her back to the orphanage. It wasn't easy because I wasn't completely well myself.
During this same period, mother was also sick although she was staying at some other place and one of the other women there was looking after her as best as she could. Genia was in the orphanage, also very ill, able to walk but not able to eat or anything. After I brought Stef back to the orphanage, I went to visit with Genia. She came outside and was standing under a tree in the courtyard, complaining that she was really sick but no one would help her. She looked really bad, all skin and bones. We talked for quite a long time outside, she complained and cried a lot. It was time for her to get back into bed and as I was leaving, she acted as if this would be the last time that she would see me. I said goodbye and went home to get some sleep.
Our beds were outside because it was much cooler than in the little clay rooms. It was around midnight when I went to sleep. I had a dream that I saw Genia outside under the tree again but then I really wasn't sure that it was a dream. The next morning, Ann came by from the orphanage to tell us that Genia had died just after midnight. I just kept thinking about the dream, I believed that I really saw her there that night.
Because it is so hot there, they have to bury the dead as soon as they can so the first thing that morning they took her to the cemetery. For me it was the saddest day of my life, I had never lost anyone close to me. I felt so bad that I couldn't go to the cemetery to see her; I wanted to remember her alive and I couldn't bear to go there and see her dead. I was so sad that I cried all day. I just couldn't believe that she was gone.
It wasn't long after that we learned that our father had also died of the same illness. From that moment we felt like we had been abandoned. We lost all hope because we were all alone no longer had anyone to look after us.
Week after week, the situation just got worse and worse and no one was helping us. I had to go around to these people and beg for food or try to sell things for food. The very last thing that we had left was our father's big overcoat. We kept it till the last because our father liked it but in the end we had to sell it too. I sold it to a very nice man who gave me 500 rubles for it and also told me that he would give me food if I would go with him to his house. I went there with him, quite a long way, through the mountains. When we got there his wife was making supper for the family and I was invited to eat with them. She gave me a big bowl of dumplings and even though my stomach was telling me that it couldn't hold it, I ate everything. I couldn't just leave the food there. The man also gave me a big bag of flour, a whole loaf of flat bread and some other things, then he showed me the way back to my camp.
My mother was so very happy when I came back with all these things. Now we didn't have anything left to sell but fortunately we learned that they were getting a transport ready to leave Guzar so we had to go there. The Polish Institute arranged for the children to go but the adults had to make their own arrangements. I went into town and found a man who was going into Guzar with a load of hay. I paid him to take my mother with the money that we made from selling the coat. I didn't pay for myself because I knew that I was entitled to go with the children, so I went to the orphanage. They took us on buses to Guzar. When I sent my mother on to Guzar I made sure that she left two days before we did because I didn't want her to be left behind.
Once we got to Guzar I had to stay in the orphanage. They wouldn't let me leave but I did have contact with my mother. Before leaving the Soviet Union everyone went to have their hair cut at the barber shop because of the lice problem. Mother told me that when she went for her cut someone managed to steal her identification and documents. When she tried, she could not make arrangements to leave the Soviet Union without them. I told her to let me know if they would still not let her go the next day as I would not go without her. I didn't want to leave her there.
The next day she went in again to talk to the officers. Luckily one of the men there was another friend of my father's and he asked what she was doing there. She explained that her papers had been stolen. He told her to come early the following morning and he would arrange it for her, which he did, and she left Guzar that afternoon for Krasnowock. Three days later we children left for the same destination.
Our transport was the last to leave the Soviet Union. After that they wouldn't let any more Polish people out.
The journey from Guzar to Krasnowodsk took about two days and nights, travelling through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Krasnowodsk I found mother with lots of other people sitting on the beach by the sea with her luggage. They were all waiting for the boat to arrive. It was very hot and we mostly just wanted some fresh water to drink. We were not offered any so I took our last few rubles and bought two litres of water. That was the last money we spent in the Soviet Union.
After a few more days, the boat finally arrived and they started loading the people from the first transport onto the boat. It was not a passenger boat, it normally carried coal or other cargo, so they loaded on as many people as possible. The Soviet soldiers were checking documents and identification as people filed onto the boat to make sure that only Poles were leaving. They would remove people who did not have the proper papers and wouldn't let them board at all. As the people loaded onto the boat, they were very worried that they might not make it on. They did not want to get left behind so they were all pushing each other and trying to hurry onto the boat. A few even fell off the planks into the water. It was a terrible mess.
The next day another boat arrived and we were also taken aboard. I was happy that our mother had left before us since that way I knew she wouldn't be left behind and would be waiting for us at the next stop.
The Soviet Paradise is now behind us
We had finally made it onto the boat. It did not matter that it was not a passenger boat, we didn't care, we were just glad to be on it and leaving the shores of the Soviet Union. We were all kept on the open deck as there was nowhere else for us to go. They had jammed as many people on the boat as they could so we couldn't move. We just had to sit in the same place for the entire journey. It was really hot sitting there in the sun without any water to drink.
The journey from Krasnowodsk to Pahlevi in Iran over the Caspian Sea lasted almost three days and nights. When the boat was approaching the shores of Pahlevi everyone was crying from happiness because we were finally out of the Soviet Union.
There had been both children and adults on the boat and lots of them were sick from a lack of water. A few people died on the way and they were thrown overboard because it was so hot that they didn't want to keep them on board till the end of the trip.
At Pahlevi, the ship could not get close to shore because of the shallow water so they put us into smaller boats for the trip to shore. When we were finally on land, people were so happy that they started kissing the ground because they now knew for sure that they were finally out of reach of the Soviet Union.
Tents had been set up for us along the shore by the Polish authorities. Everyone put their belongings in their tent and finally sat down to rest. They then brought out food and water for us all. We had been there for only a few days when, one by one, they took us into a line of tents that was the second row in. In the first tent, we were told to take off all of our clothes and they shaved off all of our hair and threw the clothes away. We were then taken to the next tent where we got to have a hot shower with soap and clean towels. Then, in the final tent, we were given a new set of clothes, from shoes to hats, towels, soap, toothbrushes and other necessities. We were then placed in another section of tents behind a fence, away from the people who had not showered yet. We stayed here for only a few days as well.
I met up with mother in the new tents but it was only for a day as she left on a transport to Teheran. A few days later they loaded all of the children on buses for the trip to Teheran. I remember sitting by the window and looking out at the beautiful mountains as we drove by. There was only one stop on the journey, overnight at a very nice resort. After breakfast we were loaded back on the buses.
I sat by the window again, enjoying the view for a few minutes when the next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital. I didn't remember anything before that. It was a Polish army hospital where all of the doctors and nurses were Polish, located just outside of Teheran. All of the sick people there were the ones that had come from the Soviet Union. The first day there I got a blood transfusion because I was losing blood. The next night I had to have another transfusion because I was still losing blood. I was in that tent for a few more days when I was examined by a doctor who then had me transferred to another tent because I was too sick to remain in the first tent. The second tent was where they kept the very sick who had little chance of survival.
During my first days there I didn't want to eat or drink anything so they put an IV tube in my hand. It didn't do any good because my veins were all dry from lack of water and food. They didn't think I was going to make it but in a few days I started to feel better and I began to eat the food they gave me. When I got a little better I realized that no one had been to see me. I saw the other sick people have their families visit but no one came to me and I started to feel very lonely and abandoned.
Finally I was well and they were ready to release me from the hospital. They had to know which camp I wanted to go to but I had no idea. I didn't know where my family was. One morning, as I was going into the hospital store, I met someone I knew. She asked me what I was doing and I explained my situation. She said that she was in camp number three and so I now knew where to go. My mother was at that camp although Ann and Stef were still with the orphanage in a different camp.
Mother was very happy to see me as she knew nothing of me or where I was. She was quite sick, just lying there, but I was now able to look after her and she got well very fast.
From these transit camps they were sending people to the various countries around the world that had agreed to take Polish refugees during the war. In order to go on the transports however, you had to be healthy. Once my mother was well again we picked up Ann and Stef and had our names put on the list to be transported. We left Teheran for Ahwaz where we had to wait a few weeks for a ship to take us further. No one was allowed to board the ship unless they were examined by the doctor and approved for travel. It was quite a few weeks more before we were all ready to leave.
From Ahwaz, the boat sailed to Karachi in India (now Pakistan). The journey was very dangerous so we were included in a convoy of ships escorted by naval destroyers, a submarine and a chopper flying overhead. Our route took us through the Persian Gulf, which was patrolled by German submarines, so they had to be very careful.
At Karachi, they let us off the ship and we were transported to the other side of town to waiting tents where we had to sit and wait for another ship. The tents were very nice, having wooden beds in them. That night, when we went in to go to sleep, we put out all the lights and got into bed. In a little while you could hear people yelling and you could feel things biting you. When we turned the lights back on, we saw the bed bugs scatter. They were really biting so we couldn't sleep in the beds. Instead, we went outside and sat there. No one slept that night. The next day soldiers came by and set up a big tank with boiling water. They dipped all the beds in the tank to kill those bugs. That night we got to sleep without the bugs bothering us.
After two or three weeks in Karachi, our boat was ready and waiting for us so we went down to the port and were loaded onto it. We headed to east Africa although this time without an escort. During the first few days, they brought us all on deck and trained us on emergency procedures. The journey from India to East Africa took three weeks. The boat was very big but as we were all alone, surrounded by water on the Indian Ocean, it felt very small. We never saw any other boats but we did see some whales which swam alongside the boat. Other than that it was a really boring trip because you really couldn't see anything but water and at night we had to go below deck to our beds. We were not allowed to keep any lights on, because it was dangerous, so all we did was eat, sleep and look at the ocean.
A few times we had an alarm and we had to go up on deck but it was only to test us in order to be sure that we knew what to do in case the danger was real. At the time though, we didn't know if it would be just a test or a real alarm.
We were told that we were headed for the port of Mombassa but for reasons unknown to us, we passed by that port and sailed past Madagascar, finally landing at Dar E Salaam in Tanganyika, East Africa. This port was shallow so we were put into smaller boats and transported to shore. Here they put us on a train and took us to Moszy, and from there we went by truck to camp Tengeru where we stayed until 1948.
For more efficient management, the camp was divided into six groups and each group into four blocks. The responsibilities of each block were to take care of their own people's food supply, clothing and all other necessities. Throughout the first months, the food had been prepared in big containers and then distributed to us, but later we received the groceries and prepared the food ourselves on stoves that were specially built for us. These stoves were built outside with only a roof over them to give a little shade. Because the cooking area was always congested at meal time I decided to build mother a nice, small stove, with an oven, close to our house. That made her very happy because now she could do her cooking and baking whenever she wanted and she did it a lot. We always had fresh bread and delicious cakes to eat.
Our camp had a pet ostrich who liked to run all over and was a lot of fun but he could be harmful and obnoxious. When people were cooking their meals he would come over and take meat right out of the boiling pot. There were so many stories about this ostrich. I remember but a few of them.
One day I was sitting in my house by the open windows, with my back to them, while I did my homework. Suddenly I saw the long neck of the ostrich over my shoulder and before I could react, he snatched my homework and disappeared. On another day, the ostrich stole a lady's watch the same way he had stolen my homework, through an open window. That ostrich ate everything, iron, glass or just whatever he found and because of that he made a lot of trouble for the people in our camp.
The camp management decided that he had to go, so they put him on a truck, took him far away and let him go free, but he returned to the camp faster than did the truck! They decided to try a second time, this time blindfolding him with a cloth over his eyes, but without success as once again he came right back. Finally, he was sent to the zoo in Nairobi.
Tengeru was the largest transit camp in East Africa with over four thousand Polish residents, mostly women and children. The location was most beautiful, surrounded on one side by Mount Meru, jungle and Lake Dilute. The other side was flat, with tall grass and small trees. When the weather was clear we could see Mount Kilimanjaro with its snow covered peak.
The camp had many different schools; elementary, high school and four technical schools. The children from other, smaller camps in East Africa who wanted to receive a technical education were sent to our camp in Tengeru. I completed my high school and four years of music school while there. I was also a member of the Scouts.
During our school breaks, the management sometimes organized outings for us or we went camping with the scouts. Some of my most memorable outings were our trips to Mount Kilimanjaro, around Mount Meru, an African safari and a concert in Arusha with our orchestra.
We also organized many outings ourselves, usually on weekends. On one such weekend I went with my friends to the waterfall. On the way we stopped at an African school and asked the teacher if we could take a photo of him and his students. It was not easy because as soon as I opened the camera all the children disappeared, but after a few trials I finally succeeded.
Our camp was home to a beautiful church, built by the people in the camp under the supervision of our Polish priest. We also had various institutions in our camp such as a library, theatre, cinema, community center, recreation center and a nice, big hospital built next to Lake Dilute.
We were never bored because there was always something to do; swimming in the lake, playing in the community center or going to the cinema. To show movies they had built a stage outside at the bottom of the hill and the seats were located on the slope of the hill. However, to get into the cinema, you had to buy a ticket. One evening, two of my friends and I tried to watch the movie over the fence, because we did not have money for tickets, but we could not see. So, we climbed a little hill which gave us a good view but we did not realize that we were on top of a termite mound. However, we did not have to wait long to find out as the termites did not like us being there and chased us away by biting very hard.
While I was in music school some funny things happened too, especially in the beginning during practice. We usually held our practices in the school which did not have any glass in the windows or doors in the frames so it was easily accessible to the dogs. Many times the dogs would come by and start howling during the practice. This would drive our teachers crazy. We chased the dogs out but they just kept coming back.
The time we spent in Africa was our happiest time and if only we would not have kept getting malaria, it would have been perfect. However, every one of us had malaria and it would come back every year so we would have to spend two weeks in the hospital.
In 1945, the war ended and everyone was very happy but not for long. We all realized that Poland was still not free. The Soviet Union was still in control. Shortly after the war ended we received an invitation to go back to Poland. The representatives of the Communist Polish government came to our camp and tried to convince us to go back. The people of the camp very angry and shouted them down. Because of the situation in Poland, as far as I know, only two families from our camp went back with them. The rest stayed at Tengeru camp until 1948.
From 1945 to 1948 the situation in the camp remained the same although people grew a bit apprehensive as they did not know what would be done with them. However, we were all still under the protection of the United Kingdom so they gave us a choice of where to go. Those families who had someone in England could go there while the rest had to choose between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States. We of course chose England because Wladek and Anka were there.
We left Africa in July of 1948 on board the ship Georgic which departed from Mombasa and took us to Southampton, England. The journey this time was pleasant, much better than our earlier voyages. We followed the coast of Africa, passed through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, travelled through the Mediterranean Sea, past the Straits of Gibraltar, into the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel and finally to Southampton. From there we were taken to the Whitton Aston transit camp. Once again everyone had to decide where to go from there.
We went to Doddington, near Crewe, where my brother lived with his family. After two or three years, I went to Glasgow, Scotland where I stayed just over one year before moving on to Bradford to stay with my mother in Anka's house. Later, I bought my own house. After two or three years I moved to London, England where I was working as a project engineer. In 1960 I married my beautiful wife, Jadwiga Teresa Fialek and August of 1967 witnessed the arrival of our long awaited son, Richard. We lived with my mother in London until 1974 when she passed away. In 1978 we emigrated to Canada.