In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west, and Russia invaded from the east two weeks later. Life changed completely under Russian occupation. Then Stalin put into action his plan to ethnically cleanse the eastern borderlands of Poland - he ordered the deportation of an estimated 1.7 million Poles to Siberia.
Janina was born in 1927. She was 13 years old when her family was forcibly taken from their home and deported by the Russians to Siberia. The date was 10 February 1940. It was a particularly brutal winter, with temperatures dipping into the minus 40s Celsius, so the conditions in the unheated cattle cars were beyond belief.
Years later, Janina wrote a diary while living in a Polish orphanage in Africa. She wrote of what she and her family had endured several years earlier – the horrible train journey to Siberia, the relentless hunger, the death, and sorrow.
Now in her late 70s, Janina refers to that diary, gently turning its brittle pages, trying to relive the past without reliving the pain.
Pressed between the pages of the diary are dried leaves picked from African trees when she was a teenager. She talks about how beautiful the trees were. Everything about Africa seemed beautiful compared to what she and her sister had been through in the several years since their family had been forced out of their home in Poland.
Janina describes the slow train journey into Siberia. “It was a train for animals, not people. It was very cold. There was a tiny window, but there were bars in it. There was a little stove in the middle for heat, if you had wood, but we had no wood. We were cold, crying, asking mother where we were going. I remember that a little baby died In our cattle car.”
Janina describes watching her three-year-old sister Aniela choke to death because of an infection growing on her neck. She knelt beside her to pray for her. Bit her mother told her that it would be better if God takes her away from this suffering.
In June 1941, Germany invaded Russian-held territories. So, Russia, which had been Germany’s ally, now became its foe. The Polish government-in-exile negotiated an ‘amnesty’ for the Poles, so that they were freed from the camps. The men were allowed to join the Polish army that was being formed in the southern USSR to fight the Germans.
The surviving family members fled to Uzbekistan when ‘amnesty’ for Poles was declared. Her two brothers enlisted and went off to fight in the Polish army.
One page of Janina’s girlhood diary is a faded pencil drawing of the tiny hut where the family found shelter. In the drawing, her mother cooks over a stone fire pit, and the sun beats down on the dilapidated hut where the family stayed.
Her father was dying. He urged the girls to follow the Polish army to Persia (Iran) where they would be cared for.
On a train bound for an orphanage, she scanned rows of corpses draped in sheets. She was afraid to look under the sheets, in case she saw her father. She had a younger sister to care for, now that they had been separated from their ailing parents. She tried to be brave. But those bodies covered in sheets terrified her.
Janina and her sister never saw their father again. They spent some time in Persia and were eventually sent to the orphanage in the Polish settlement of Masindi in Africa. Resources for the settlement were provided by the Polish Government-in-exile. In addition, soldiers of the Polish army agreed that a % of their pay would be used to support the orphanages.
Janina and her sisters were educated and cared for by Catholic missionaries. They stayed in Africa for seven years, moving from one orphanage to another.
When the orphanages were shut down after the war, a Catholic organization sponsored their move to Canada. After they learned that their one surviving brother was working on a farm near Kitchener, the sisters also moved to the area. All three still live in the area.
“It was very difficult,” Janina said, “but we are survivors. I want to shout from the rooftops, about what we went through. I want people to know.”
Memories like these are burned into the minds of the Poles who lived through the brutal Siberian deportations of 1940-1941. Wherever they found new lives after WW2, the survivors bore both the physical and mental scars caused by abuse, starvation, and grief.
Many refused to talk about their ordeals in Siberia, fearing reprisal from the same Soviet System that had enslaved them. Others remained silent because they could not find words to convey the horrors.
But now, as the decades pass and the legacy of the deported Poles fades deeper into historical obscurity, more and more survivors are sharing their stories.
Those old enough to remember Siberia are now old. They want to tell the world what happened while they still can. This is what Janina is trying to do.
Source: KPF interview