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Janina (Marchewka) SARNIAK


This is a composite story compiled from the records of previous conversations, transcript from an extensive 1993 interview, and from multiple telephone calls in 2005 between Janina and her daughter Lonia.

My father, Walenty Marchewa, was originally from Paplin, in the Skierniewice district.  He was a senior lancer in the 14 Pulk Ulanow Jazlowieckich (cavalry regiment) and had fought for Poland’s independence in WW1, and later in the Polish-Soviet war in 1919-1920.  He had been badly wounded but I’m not sure during which war.  As a reward for his war service he was given 14 hectares of land on Osada Jazlowiecka.  This was a large settlement of about a hundred ex-army servicemen and their families near the town of Rowne in the Wolyn province of Eastern Poland. [Previously, the area had been an artillery range under the Tsarist regime.  Most of the land that had been given to the military settlers was virgin land that required much work to be brought into production]. 


My mother Leontyna (Lonia) Marchewa (nee Sobolewska) was from the nearby town of Tuczyn.  Together, my parents farmed the land and built a house. We were all born in the house – my sister Romana (Romka), myself, and my two younger brothers Bogdan and Mieczyslaw (Miecio).

The farm was 14 hectares and my father grew sugar beet and tobacco. We also had animals – pigs, two nice horses, a cow.


We lived in a brick house.  We used to have a wooden house but it had been burnt down by Ukrainians two or three times.  Each time was when my father was away.  I can still remember neighbours dragging Mum and us screaming kids out of our burning house.  After that, Dad built a brick house.  Our house was a single story and had two large bedrooms, a large kitchen, and a large dining/living room.  Romka, Bogdan and I slept in one bedroom and my parents and youngest brother Miecio shared the other bedroom. 


The first I knew of the Russian invasion was when Soviet soldiers arrived in our area.  Three weeks later we were forced off our land by a group of Ukrainians.  This was in October 1939.  A Ukrainian man who worked for my father had secretly warned us of the impending eviction, giving my parents time to prepare themselves by moving some possessions, food, etc. to my maternal uncle’s house in Tuczyn.  My father also buried his gun and army documents on our land. Then we went to stay with Uncle Feliks and Aunty Apolonia and their family: Janek, Zosia, Genia and Renia.  My mother’s other brother Uncle Antoni, his wife Aunty Jadwiga, and their family: Czesiek, Stasiek, Aniela, Jasia, Romka, and Wladzia, lived right across the road.


On 10 February 1940, at about 2.00 am, the Soviet soldiers came to arrest us.  My father was shoved against the wall and held at gunpoint.  My uncle was told to wake the rest of our family.  My mother was given about half an hour to pack some food and warm clothes.  We were told that there was no need to take much, as there would be plenty where we were going.  Us kids were all crying and clinging to Mum.  My uncle and his family were not deported as he was not a military settler.  In later deportations, others, even whole villages, were deported, but in the first deportation they were mainly arresting the military settlers and their families.


Our family was taken by horse-drawn sledge to the Kostopol station and loaded onto cattle wagons.  Our ages at this time were: Father 44 years, Mother 45 years, Romka14 years, myself 13 years, Bogdan 10 years, Miecio 8 years.  I remember very little about the journey to our final destination other than the station at Zdolbunow  in Poland, and Shepetovka over the border in Russia.  We travelled on the train from February 10th to February 29th. I remember the train sometimes stopping in the middle of nowhere for days at a time. I don’t recall anyone in our wagon dying.  They may have, but I don’t remember.  I do know that people did die on that and other trains. This was one of the coldest winters on record (-40C) and people were dying from the cold and lack of food. As they died the Soviet soldiers threw their bodies out alongside the tracks.

We were taken to a posiolek (labour camp) deep in the forest near Archangel in Siberia. [near the Arctic circle].  We were accommodated in barracks, where we had a room about the size of a sitting room and there were 10 of us living in that room. There was no heating. The next morning my father had to go to work. Mother was already too ill to go.  My father was put to work in the forest, clearing trees.

We stayed there for quite a while and when the snow started to melt (a lot of people were already dying and they just buried them under the snow and that’s it) and when the snow started to melt, nearly all the bodies started to come out because they were only covered with snow.  They quickly shifted us to another place which had a sawmill.”


I didn’t actually see that, but that’s a fact. I didn’t even see a dead body then because nobody had died in my family then.  I’d never even seen a dead body in my life.  They shifted us to a camp with a sawmill and my father worked in the sawmill.

We were then taken to another posiolek - most probably Monastyriok.  This was closer to Kotlas and alongside the Dvina River. We stayed at this camp until after the 'amnesty.'  There was a large sawmill and most people were put to work in the sawmill or in the forest.  The work began at first light and people didn’t finish until dark.  For this they received a few roubles to buy food (there was often no food to buy) and a bread ration.

We were told that we were to stay there until we died.  Also, if you do not work you do not eat.  Everyone over 15 years old had to work.  Children under 15 had to go to school.  My mother had an exemption from work as she was too sick.  My father became ill and was taken to the hospital [possibly in Privodino].  Now there was no one in the family who was able to work, so we had no food.  Mum stopped sending us to school as we were too hungry. The camp commandant came to see Mum to find out why we weren’t in school.  As a result, we were issued a bread ration even though none of us could work. The conditions in the camps depended a lot on the commandants.  In this camp the commandant was quite good, but in many of the camps they were very brutal.

When my father was discharged from the hospital he was given lighter duties.  He had to rise at 3.00 am to prepare the horses for the other workers to take to the forest.  In the evening it was his job to settle the horses for the night.  Every morning my father would wake me at 3.00 am to go and queue for the bread.  My sister used to go but she would often come back in tears, without bread, after being pushed out of the queue.

Up until this period I had always been very shy and a polite child, but now I started to toughen up.  I was determined that no one was going to push me out of the queue and I was going to bring bread back for my family.  Mum said that she relied on me to get the bread.  If anyone pushed me I pushed back as hard as I could.  I didn’t care who they were, I was going to get our share of bread.

Although we’d spent over 18 months in the labour camps, we’d managed to survive as a family.  In the early days things weren’t so bad as we’d brought some food from Poland and also received occasional food parcels from our relatives back home.  After the first few months, the food ran out and that’s when things got really hard.  But even then it wasn’t as bad as it became during the exodus south.  Father later told me (after Mother had died) that the worst decision he ever made was leaving the camp at that time.  He felt that had we stayed and somehow survived the winter then eventually we might have made our way back to Poland.  But everyone was terrified of the approaching winter and was desperate to leave and head south.

The 'amnesty' was announced in August 1941 and we left in October of that year.  We were heading south, so my father could join the Polish army. Everyone’s goal was to reach the Polish army, as the families of the soldiers would be under army protection.

I don’t remember much about how we got to the south as it was a long time ago.  The dominant memory is that the family travelled by train to Kirghizia, twice travelled by barge along the Amu-Darya River, and that Tashkent was their likely objective.

The Russian soldiers loaded us on a barge on the Amu-Darya River.  This would have been in Uzbekistan where the river flows northwards across the desert into the Aral Sea. The barge had ice down the sides and it was very cold.  We were only given soup and bread, that’s all. The soup was a thin watery gruel and just a piece of bread.. After travelling on the barge for a week, we were unloaded and sent to a kolkhoz in Kirghizia to work.


The people [Kirghizian] were very kind to us but they were poor themselves, they couldn’t give us anything.  But they grew cotton.  My father was already very sick, my mother couldn’t work and my brothers were too young to work.  So my sister and I worked in the cotton fields.  In the evenings we went to the Kirghizians’ houses as they were our bosses.  All we worked for was a piece of bread.  We had no pay or anything, just a piece of bread.  We were quite happy over there because the people were so nice.”


One day we were in the field when the Russians came and told us to go home – you are no longer required to work here!  When we went home my father told us we can’t stay here.  The Russian officials were also there and told us – you’re no longer required here, you have to move from here because you came here by mistake.”


Often trains carrying people south were diverted by the Soviet soldiers to collective farms so the people could be used for labour. At other times the former deportees were rounded up and sent to the collective farms.  So we were put on another barge and sent back along the Amu-Darya River.  This trip also lasted for about a week.

It was on the return journey along the river that my mother died.  She was very ill in a room that was being used as a hospital.  I was sleeping next to Mum when my father came and woke me up.  He told me to go and join my sister and two brothers.  I awoke very early in the morning and ran down to see Mum.

I knew as soon as I saw her that she was dead.  I ran crying back to my sister and told her Mum was dead.  We sat there crying and Dad came in.  He told us Mum wasn’t dead but I told him I knew she was as I’d seen her.  Dad then admitted that Mum had died but told us not to tell our little brothers.  Dad and another man were able to row to the shore and bury M on the land.  Normally, as the people died they were thrown into the river but somehow my father managed to bury Mum on land.  She was buried somewhere on the river bank – I don’t know where.  Mum died on 1 December 1941.  She was 47 years old.

Dad and us four kids carried on south to try to get to the army.  Somewhere along the way we were rounded up by Soviet soldiers and sent to another collective farm to work.  This would have been near Kenimekh in Uzbekistan.  My father had frost-bitten feet and was too ill to work, so he was sent to the hospital in Kenimekh.  We kids weren’t wanted on the collective farm as we were too young to work, so no good to anyone.  We were sent off to the hospital with our father.  My youngest brother Miecio was also becoming very ill and of course we were all suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion.  At the hospital, Romka, Miecio, and I shared a bed, and Bogdan and Father shared another. 

While we were at the hospital I caught typhoid.  This is also what my youngest brother had.  There was an epidemic of typhoid so many people around us were catching it and dying like flies.  My older sister Romka and Bogdan were sent back to the collective farm.  Father recovered enough to be discharged so he took Romka and Bogdan to the orphanage in Kermine.


Then Miecio died in the hospital.  He was only 10 years old.  I remember him lying there, with bones poking out everywhere – just a little skeleton covered with skin.  I was lying in bed next to Miecio, not realizing he’d slipped into a coma.  I tried to wake him to tell him that they were bringing us some food.  As I was shaking him a nurse yelled at me to leave him alone.  ‘Can’t you see he’s dying’ she yelled at me.  I didn’t know Miecio was dying and this is my guiltiest memory.  If I hadn’t tried to wake him he may have died sooner.  By shaking him I interrupted his dying and he took a few hours longer to die.  And he suffered so much.

To this day I still feel guilty for prolonging his dying.  After Miecio died, they wrapped him in a sheet and took him away and buried him somewhere in a communal grave.  I don’t know where. So many people were dying that they were mainly buried in unmarked communal graves. Miecio died 10 February 1942.  I remember the date as it was exactly two years to the day since we were deported.

I was still in hospital with typhoid so Father made arrangements for me to join Romka and Bogdan in the orphanage when I recovered.  He then left to join the army.  I never saw him again.  I eventually learned what had happened to him.  I found death certificate, apparently transcribed at a later date once the exodus had reached the safety of Persia.  This indicates that he probably did meet up with the army and died two months after she last saw him.  He died in a Polish military hospital in Wrewskoye, Uzbekistan on 10 April 1942 and was buried next day at a Polish military cemetery in Wrewskoye.  The cause of death is recorded as bronchitis.  He was 46 years old.

When I started to feel better I discharged myself from the hospital.  They didn’t want to let me go as they said I was still too ill but they couldn’t force me to stay.  I wanted to be with Romka and Bogdan.  I left the hospital but was too weak to walk so was crawling on all fours.

I had no idea where I was going.  I was crossing a bridge when I saw two soldiers ahead.  I recognized the Polish white eagle on their caps but I spoke to them in Russian as I was too frightened to speak in Polish.  I told them I was a Polish girl and they spoke to me in Polish.  They asked me where I was going and I told them, I don’t know. They asked about my family and I told them that I didn’t know where they were. They carried me to the orphanage in Kermine. This orphanage was under the protection of 7th Division, Polish army which was stationed in Kermine. This was also the orphanage where Romka and Bogdan had been but all the children had already been moved. I think they may already have been taken to Persia but I’m not sure. They already had my details at the orphanage as my father had earlier made arrangements for me to go there when I was able to be discharged from hospital.

At first, there was only myself and an older girl there. She had known my sister and offered to look out for me. Then more children started to arrive. I remember the first ones who arrived were two little boys about 5 or 6 years old. Their mother had died so their father brought them to the orphanage and went to join the army. By the time we were ready to move to Persia there were about 200 children. All the moves happened late at night to hide us from the Soviets. We were taken to Tashkent [Uzbekistan] and from there most of the children went to Krasnovodsk [Turkmenistan].  From there they crossed the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi in Persia. The very small children and ones like myself who were too ill to cross the Caspian Sea were transported over the mountains [in lorries] from Ashkhabad [Turkmenistan] to Meshed [Persia]. 


About 98% of the Poles crossed the Caspian Sea but a small number went overland to Persia – in total about 1900 civilians and 700 army personnel]. In fact they weren’t going to take me to Persia at all as I was not expected to survive the journey. However, a staff member (whose daughter was my close friend) took personal responsibility for me and refused to let me be left behind. We arrived in Persia near the end of August 1942. After two and a half years in the Soviet Union I was free. I was 16 years old and weighed 25 kg.  Soon after arriving in Meshed I was taken to an American hospital where I stayed for many 9 or 10 months. I was like a skeleton and was very ill but eventually recovered. During my stay in hospital I had a visit from a Polish priest who told me my sister Romka had died in Uzbekistan . She was 16 or 17 years old. 


At Christmas time in the hospital we were visited by Father Christmas.  He gave me a present - an autograph book. I still have this book and will treasure it for the rest of my life.  In fact, other than a photo or two, this book is the only memento I have from Meshed. The inscriptions are from friends I made in hospital and at the orphanage in Meshed, and later in Teheran and Isfahan.  Also, some inscriptions are from the staff who took such wonderful care of us. 

These days it is difficult for me to remember many of the people who inscribed my book as it was so long ago, but some I do remember.  For example, Lillian who used to teach me English, I think she was Syrian. She worked in the hospital but I can’t remember whether she was a nurse. There was a nurse named Katherine Mourada, possibly also Syrian. And Bernice Cochran, I think she was a doctor. Then there was Sister Celine from the Meshed orphanage. She was our teacher of religion. There are a couple of inscriptions with drawings from a friend who was a very good artist – Lodzia Leska. Also from the Meshed orphanage were Teresa Wiszowata and Zofia Pleciak who later came to New Zealand with me. In fact, Zofia’s family was from Osada Hallerowo which was next to our Osada, and our families had been in the same labour camp.          

From Meshed I was sent to Teheran. While I was there I met a lady [Mrs Budzyn] who knew my family from Poland. She had also been in the labour camp with us. Mrs Budzyn told me my brother Bogdan was alive and in the Polish youth army with her son Richard.  They were in Egypt. She offered to enclose a letter to Bogdan from me in her next mail to her son. This was how I found my brother. 


After a few weeks in Teheran I was sent to a children’s home in Isfahan. This was a beautiful city where they were sending many of the orphans. Isfahan was known to have the most temperate climate in Persia so the children were sent there to assist in their recovery.  Isfahan was a wonderful place. The orphanages were called homes and our home was set in the most beautiful garden surrounded by a high wall. I think it was one of the Shah’s palaces. Life in Isfahan was very happy and everyone was so kind. I have wonderful memories of Persia and the kindness of the Persian People. I stayed there until we left for New Zealand.  I was in Persia for just over 2 years.

On 27 September 1944]we left Isfahan and were taken to Ahvaz, then Basra where we were put on a British merchant ship. After about a week we reached Bombay. There we boarded the American troopship “General Randall” and sailed to New Zealand. On 1 November 1944, we sailed into Wellington harbour.

I was on that list going to New Zealand. I never even knew what New Zealand looked like or whatever. We were told first that New Zealand is a beautiful country but there is still a lot of wildness in it, and the black eat the white. Yeah, we were told that. We were crying, we didn’t want to go.  But they said ‘no no, you’ll be okay. Lots of supervisors will go with you, you’ll be okay’.  But that was really scary coming at first.


Coming to New Zealand was the greatest experience of my life. I’d never seen anything like it. New Zealand looked like a fairyland from the boat when we were first approaching the land. It was in the afternoon, a sunny afternoon. New Zealanders later told us that when we came to New Zealand we brought the sunshine with us. The day was so beautiful, the sky so blue, and the New Zealand houses on the hills looked so wonderful. I’d never seen anything like it.”


Our first night in New Zealand was spent on the ship and the following day we were taken to Wellington Railway station. That was amazing, we were greeted by a huge crowd of children waving Polish and New Zealand flags. We travelled by train to Pahiatua and along the way we saw so many people (mainly children) waving flags. We had another huge welcome in Palmerston North and we arrived in Pahiatua shortly after. Our second night in New Zealand was spent in our new home – the Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua.

While in the camp, I acquired another autograph book.  I think this was also a Christmas present. The inscriptions in the book are from my friends in the camp. We’d all shared a similar fate so were very close, like one big family. The two autograph books still survive and have now been copied into an archive in North America. They are to be loaned to the Polish Heritage Trust Museum in Auckland New Zealand for safe keeping. 


I spent 3 years in the camp during which time I finished my schooling.  Then in 1948 my close friend Regina and I went to work in Wakefield, Nelson in the South Island. We worked in a sewing factory where I was taught to make men’s trousers. Regina and I boarded with the owner’s brother and his family. After 18 months we moved to Wellington.


A few years later I met my future husband – Antoni (Antos) Sarniak. He was from Czestochowa and had been working as an apprentice saddler for his brother. In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland the army needed saddlers so Antos volunteered his services. He was in the 27th Regiment (Infantry). He had only just turned 17 and was captured within the first week. He spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp (Stalag 6A, in Hemmer).  After being liberated, he joined the Occupation Forces in the British sector in Hamburg. He arrived in New Zealand as a displaced person in 1950, on the ship “Hellenic Prince”. 


Antos and I married on 29 October 1955 and we settled in Wellington. Our two daughters Lonia and Dorotka were both born in Wellington. In 1963 I developed TB and spent 4 months in hospital. We were advised to leave our damp house as living there was too risky for my health. So we left Wellington and moved to Levin for the next 22 years. My husband and I then moved to the Auckland area for nearly two years. Then we moved to our final destination – Wanganui. In March 1993, Antos was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away four months later on 3rd July.


I still live in my own home in Wanganui and hope to spend the rest of my days here. My older daughter Lonia and her partner Stephen live near me in Wanganui, and my younger daughter Dorotka and her husband Bruce live in the South Island. There are no grandchildren.


[Looking back some 60 years now, can you recall how some of these experiences made you feel?]


When my mother died my world fell apart. I was very close to Mum and loved her with all my heart. I loved my Father too very much, but I had a very special bond with my Mother.  Even though we were so desperately hungry and in rags, our family still had each other so we had hope. Now Mum was gone everything changed.


When I went into the orphanage I felt like my life had ended. I was so desperately unhappy. I cried whenever anyone spoke to me, especially if they sounded even a bit rough. The people were very kind but I felt so alone and lonely.  I didn’t know where my brother and sister were or even if they were alive. 


Even in New Zealand part of me felt so miserable and unhappy and I cried a lot. On the one hand, I was excited about coming here and loved the Pahiatua camp – it was my home. I had wonderful friends and we were like a family. Everyone was so kind and I was very happy there. But another part of me found it very lonely being completely alone. A lot of the children did have brothers or sisters in the camp but some of us had no family at all with us and that was really hard. And of course there were some children who were the only survivors from their families. 

I knew that families were being reunited so I wrote to the authorities to see if my brother could come to New Zealand. At the time he was with the Polish youth army in Egypt and wanted to join me in New Zealand. I never received a reply so thought he wasn’t allowed to come. This completely devastated me as I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t come here.  Many years later, after I got married, my husband made some enquiries about why he wasn’t granted a Visa and was told there was no reason why he shouldn’t have got a Visa.  They had no record of any application. Who knows what had happened – maybe my letter got lost in the post. They were now willing to grant him a Visa but he was by now settled in England so wasn’t keen to emigrate.

I finally saw my brother again in 1985, when he came to visit me in New Zealand. That was so wonderful but I know I will never see him again. He is in his mid-seventies, but is now blind and unable to walk without a walking frame. And I also have health problems so neither of us will ever be able to visit the other. But I’ll never forget how wonderful it was to see my brother again after 43 years.

There was nothing for me to go back to so I have never returned to Poland.





In the late 1960s or maybe the early 1970s a policeman arrived at our house with news that Mum’s Uncle Antoni and Aunty Jadwiga Sobolewski from Tuczyn were alive and had been trying to trace her since the war. They and their adult children Czesiek, Stasiek, Aniela, Romka, Jasia and Wladzia, were now living in Ontario, Canada, and in 1976 they brought Mum over to Canada to visit them. She had a wonderful time and felt so welcome and at home with her uncle, aunty, cousins and their families. After a couple of months she returned home but had left her heart in Canada


In 1994, Janina was diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephalus. This is a fairly uncommon condition which took much investigation over a long period to diagnose. She had neuro-surgery in Wellington where a VP shunt was inserted to drain excess fluid from the brain. Unfortunately it was not possible to reverse the condition as there was already quite a lot of damage. Consequently Janina has very poor short-term memory and struggles with mobility. However, the shunt has contained the hydrocephalus and she manages amazingly well under the circumstances. She does not have dementia, indeed is very sharp, although probably because of the memory dysfunction it is difficult for Mum to easily engage in conversation. She has a cheeky sense of humour, enjoys an outing, but does not like getting up in the morning.

0n 5 August 2006 Janina travelled to the Polish Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, and, along with many other former Pahiatua camp children, was conferred with the Siberian Cross.

Document provided courtesy of Julian Plowy

Grandparents, Miecio and Bogdan




Copyright: Sarniak family

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