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.