Jan SKRZYPCZAK

Polish 2nd Corps

In Poland in 1940 (at the age of 20) I attempted to cross the border [that was formed from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which split Poland in half between the Nazi west and the Soviet east] from Lipsk, in Radom county, which was recently annexed by the Soviets, back west to a German occupied area where I lived. I had the unfortunate bad timing to walk smack into the Russian border patrol on my way back home. The reason for my risking such an illegal crossing [from Nazi-occupied Poland into Soviet-occupied Poland and back] was to visit my uncle, Adam Zima, (who lived in Lipsk) to buy miscellaneous merchandise such as clothes and shoes for a little business that I helped my uncle run.


As a result I was held in a detention center near the border in Zareby, in Bialystok County for four weeks (February to March). The centre was really a former monastery. I was then transported to an actual jail for a period of three months (from March to June). It was a nightmare because the jail cell was built for one or two individuals, but thirty two prisoners were packed into my cell. Needless to say we were packed in like sardines and slept on bare floors without the conveniences of a bed and, more important, without a toilet. In that cell there was only a barrel used for bodily waste deposit, although once a day we were escorted to an actual bathroom to relieve ourselves.


Three or four times a week we were interrogated by Russian officers from internal security (the Russian initials were NKVD). These officers tried to frighten us poor saps into admitting we were German spies. Usually these interrogations took place late at night as a “torture” mechanism when we were half asleep and most vulnerable due to lowered defenses, since we so badly craved sleep. Some eventually broke down and falsely admitted that they were spies for the Germans, while many others like myself, clung to the truth. These officers wanted me to admit (as I’m sure they did to others) that I was Byelorussian [The Soviets had been exterminating many hundreds of thousands of residents of modern day Belarus for “counter-revolutionary activity”], but I patriotically stood firm and told them that I was Polish.


In June I was sent to Witebysk (or Witebisk) in Byelorussia [modern day Vitsyebsk, Belarus] for further interrogation, which lasted approximately one month. I, along with others, was sentenced by the NKVD, in a kangaroo court, since no judges were in view to pass “just” sentences. My “crime” was crossing the border illegally, for which I received a mandatory sentence of five years; admitted spies received ten years or more, while some were even shot to death. After the verdict, we prisoners were loaded on a freight train consisting of cattle cars (forty people per car). There were two planks which served as a sort of bunk bed, but the wood was not comfortable to sleep on. In the doorway, there was a slot to take care of our physical needs. Once a day, at the bigger train stations, each of us received a small bottle of water, suchary (dried bread/crackers), and dry salted cod fish as nourishment for the whole day.


After 27 days of this sort of traveling we arrived at Kotlas, Russia (in the Republic of Komi) which served as a distribution point for transfer to river barges. There were about eight hundred people per barge, and four barges were pulled by a steam tug boat. Of course, we had planks on the side of the barges to deposit our waste, and we were led ten at a time from the bottom of the barge (where we were imprisoned) to the top. Russian soldiers (about twenty per barge) served as “security guards” keeping a careful eye on us. In order to get water, we did so via a barrel. This was disgusting because the barrels did not have clean water, but rather, water with human waste in it.

After three days and nights we finally arrived in Uhta, Russia (also in the Republic of Komi). In Uhta, we prisoners were unloaded and subsequently divided into groups of 270. We walked thirty kilometers to a camp, where we had to build our own cabins to sleep in. After we finished building the cabins we had to erect a fence to enclose us like chickens as a precaution against escape. Then we were forced to construct barracks for the officers and soldiers who guarded us. After a week of construction, we prisoners were led into the forest to cut timber. Each person was assigned the task of cutting seven meters by seven meters per day for a combined total of 49 square meters per week, with no holidays or weekends off. At the end of the workday our sources of energy consisted of only 700 grams of bread a day [roughly the size of a standard loaf], soup cooked with herring, which was smelly and not very appealing, 100 grams of oats [roughly 389 calories] and wild fruit tea.


The barrack we slept in was heated by a barrel stove. One man in each cabin was given the task of cutting wood and keeping the stove burning. However, our nights were not restful since we were swarmed with thousands of bed bugs which resided in the wood and were as bothersome as mosquitos. If that was not bad enough there was a lack of access to soap and disinfectant with which to wash our bodies. So our clothes and hair were covered with lice.


Every day it felt like we were in the Armed Forces because a bell hanging from a pipe was rung and signaled that we had thirty minutes to get dressed and in formation. We were then led out to the woods which were between eight and ten miles away. Even the guards walked with us since there was no other form of transportation. This went on from October 1940 to April 1941. In April, I became temporarily blind due to the glare of the sunlight [Photokeratitis (snow blindness)]. At night during that period (December-February) the temperature would drop to -50 degrees, in later months it would be as low as 10 degrees. This caused the snow to harden like a windowpane and the eyes took a beating. Due to my temporary blindness, I was laid up for a week inside the barrack. My eyes were so infected that constant streams of tears were falling down my cheeks.


After that first week I was mercifully escorted to a hospital thirty miles away in Uhta, walking there in wet snow. In the hospital Doctor Nina Dobrotrwoskaya, a very good doctor, treated me with eleven injections of some type of medicine into the left eye, since I suppose that one was worse off than the right eye. Soon I began to see well again and the doctor was such a kind and good-hearted person that she kept me in a camp near the hospital for outpatient treatment for about a month. I began to work in the hospital, cutting wood for heating.


When the Nazi-Soviet war broke out on June 22, 1941, my five-year prison sentence was cut short after just two years. I continued working at the hospital for another six months. After this time I went to a railway station and illegally boarded a freight train and traveled five hundred miles back to Kotlas where I, among others, found our way to the foreign Polish ex-prisoners trying to join the Polish army. After a month we were put on a four-wagon cattle train and it took four weeks to get to southern Russia to modern-day Uzbekistan. There I joined the Polish Army.


We received English Army uniforms and Russian arms and began training in the steppes of Uzbekistan. There we awaited the arrival of Polish General Wladislaw Anders who was negotiating to take us out of Russia. Our Polish General Sikorski arrived in Russia from England, to bargain with Stalin for more people to form a bigger army in Russia. Stalin preferred that Poles fight alongside the Russians whereas General Anders insisted that the Poles align themselves with the English and Americans.

In August a notice came from General Anders to board a certain boat to cross the Caspian Sea to Persia [modern-day Iran]. We went to a train station in Huzar, Uzbekistan, offloaded in Krasnivok station and walked four miles to the boat. We landed at the port city of Pahlevi and were then put into quarantine to disinfect and bathe. Later we got new linens and clothes. We slept on the sand under roofs made of reeds that protected us against the sun’s rays. We lived like this for two weeks. Then we were trucked to the Iraqi city of Kanekin [Kirkuk?]. There, we were issued tents and tropical helmets, and our army training began in earnest.