I, Joanna Brodniewicz (nee Niewiadomy) was born on November 3rd 1927 in Strusow, Tarnopol State, Poland. My father was Wladyslaw Niewiadomy, and my mother was Paulina, nee Leszczynska.
My Father worked in local government as a supervisor for the building and maintenance of local bridges and roads. My mother was very involved and dedicated to her voluntary work as president of Kolo Gospodyn Wiejskich (Organization of Country Housewives). Mrs. Komorowski, the wife of General Komorowski the leader of the future Warsaw Uprising, was the founder of this movement. My father was also an active member of the Farmer’s Organization which owned a bank, a food supply store, and supplied provisions for the nearly army garrison. The instructors of these organizations taught the traditional farmers how to use modern techniques to run their farms while the women had courses in domestic science. Many interesting people were welcomed into our house. The front gates were always opened for all passersby as an old Polish tradition required: “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom” (when a guest enters your home, God enters it too), or Czem chata bogata tem rada” (Whatever we possess, we would like to share with you).
We loved our home in Strusow. The picturesque little town was situated along the Seret River. Endless woods surrounded it on the east; farmlands stretched out as far as the Pantalicha Steppe on the opposite boundary.
My mother and father were full of ideas on how to improve the lives of its inhabitants. Poland had just regained its independence after over one hundred years of partition by its neighbors and was recovering from the devastation of the First World War. Of course, my parents dreamt of a bright and secure future for my younger sister, Misia, and myself. But, without the slightest warning our lives would change drastically as Hitler attacked our country on September 1st, 1939.
At age eleven, I had just started Grammar School away from home when German bombs fell on a nearly railway station and market place massacring innocent civilians. Somehow, miraculously, they missed the school. I was in a hysterical state when my father, who had been doing some business in the city, picked me up and took me home. From then on someone in our house always had an ear to the radio listening to the news. The reports worsened every hour as we anticipated help for our beleaguered country from France, England or America. We waited in vain while our young men drafted into the Polish army and left home for war.
Meanwhile, the interstate highway which ran south through Strusow towards Romania was flooded with refugees. The trucks, carts and carriages of all sorts, full of people and their belongings, were pushing their way in chaos and panic towards the border. Abandoned cars that had run out of gas obstructed the road. Frightened horses ran wild trampling pedestrians. From our house situated on a hill, I could witness all the terrible confusion. The refugees were hungry and exhausted and could hardly move on any further. My mother quickly organized groups of women and our domestic help to prepare meals for as long as our supplies lasted.
Then, suddenly, the highway became completely deserted and ominously very quiet. After a while, I saw Marysia and Lona Bocianowski, friends of my parents, running towards our home crying. “The Russians have invaded us!” They had received a telegram from the Tarnopol post office. Soon after, my father returned home completely devastated by the same news. We all cried.
The next day, a huge red flag with a hammer and sickle was hoisted on the city administration building and men with red bands on their arms ran onto the streets calling all the citizens for a compulsory meeting on the square. Houses were searched to ensure that all inhabitants attended. From the platform above our heads we were told that the Polish workers had invited the Soviet Union to bring justice and order to our corrupt nation and we were now to obey and respect communist laws.
From that day terror and uncertainty dominated our lives. All goods disappeared from the stores within a few days. Any luxury items such as jewelry and formal dresses were sent to Russia. The streets were deserted and those who had to go out would avoid contact with passers-by. As evening fell, our curtains were drawn tight while we listened to any noise outside. Our only contact with the outside world was from a radio hidden in a wardrobe under old clothing.
Two weeks after the invasion, I was awakened by an unusual bustle in our home. My mother calmed me down and whispered that my Uncle Wladek and his friend Teodor had walked home from the far distant city of Poznan and needed a good rest. I found out that the Cegielski factory where arms and ammunition were made had been taken over by the Germans after two days of resistance. Only a few of the workers, such as my uncle and his friend, had managed to escape being sent off to concentration camps. They had walked mostly at night on country roads, sleeping occasionally in haystacks. They had bartered their shoes and other belongings to villagers for food. Their rest, however, did not last long. I woke up one morning to find he was gone. Somebody reported my uncle to the police. They came at night to our house, arrested him and deported him to a state prison in Tarnopol. Many young men were disappearing in the middle of the night.
A few weeks later, it was almost dark outside when I spotted a male silhouette dressed in rags. I was curious and approached him. To my surprise, I recognized him as Jasio Brodniewicz, our neighbor. I had prayed for his safe return from the war. He had managed to escape when the Germans surrounded his cavalry platoon while defending Warsaw. He had walked home not knowing that he would come back only to share my uncle’s fate. He was hiding in a friend’s house and somehow the Soviets found out where he was and arrested him.
The winter of 1939-1940 was unbearably difficult for my family. Nobody knew what the future held in store. My sister and I had to attend school and our new teachers often asked us how our parents were doing; in other words they were spying on parents from the replies of their children. Instead of our Polish scouting organization, they formed a new “pioneers” organization, with the intent of rewarding the best in the class, but the best included spying on friends.
I shall never be able to erase the memory of the events of April 13th 1940. In the middle of the night, our front door was forced open by Russian soldiers with bayonets accompanied by two civilians who confirmed our identity. The arrest warrant said we were “potentially dangerous elements” (later, we began to think we were arrested because my father worked for the government, my mother was very active, and they were always helping our neighbors). We were given twenty minutes to dress and pack. My father was detained in another room and interrogated by NKWD (secret police) officials. Teodor, my uncle’s friend, was still living with us, and perhaps luckily for him was not on the list for deportation. He was ordered out. We never found out what happened to him. In shock, my mother emptied out a basket filled with linens waiting to be pressed and filled it up with some clothes. I filled my satchel with school books and picked up my treasured violin. Misia, my sister, just dressed and was ready to go. As we were leaving our home, our dog’s howling could be heard for miles. There was one shot followed by terrifying stillness.
The railroad station was fully prepared for our arrival. The doors of endless cattle and freight cars were wide open. Armed soldiers shoved us in and bolted them shut. It was pitch dark inside and we were squeezed like sardines. Two massive wooden tiers running along one side were to be our beds. The children were lifted to the top and I was granted a space by a small crack in the boards. Through this I could observe the outside and report to the other passengers what was taking place at the station None of us had any idea of why this was happening to us and where our destination was to be. Apart from our bunk beds our accommodations were stark. We had no bathroom facilities, no lights, ho heating, no ventilation and the hole in the middle of the floor served as a toilet for us all. There were sixty people of all ages, including women and children, crammed into the car. Two boys, fourteen and nine years of age, had been seized without their parents. The adults had escaped in the hope that their children would be spared if they were not present.
A few lucky people had managed to pack some food, which lasted for a day or so. The rest of us were nourished at night stops by two buckets of so called soup which consisted of boiled water and not much else. Those who died on the train were simply wrapped in a blanket and thrown out the carriage. Each night, just before sunset, one of the carriages would start singing hymns as others joined. These were our desperate prayers, which were even able to move our guards.
On the first day of May, the communist’s day of victory, our train stopped in Novosibirsk. The window boards of our car were removed for the first time since the beginning of our journey so that we could see how the drunken crowds celebrated their worker’s day. Bands played all night long and the air was filled with the crazed clamor of their revelry. We did not complain since we were included in the party with a gift of a small roll of bread and real soup (served in the usual buckets of course.)
From Novosibirsk our train turned south towards Semipolatinsk, Kazakhstan. Ajahuz station close to the Chinese border was our final destination after twenty-one days of travel. At sunrise we were taken out of the carriages and loaded into open-topped trucks and began a new leg of our journey. We traveled two hundred kilometers into the bare, flat steppe surrounded with mountains. When we were finally allowed to unload from the trucks I was so weak from hunger, lack of exercise, and fresh air that I could not walk but had to crawl like an animal on all fours.
The day before our arrival, all the inhabitants of Sovhoz, Karakol had been called into a meeting. They were briefed on how to treat “the oppressors of the working people; these blood thirsty monsters”. A few of the Kazakhs approached us with whips, stopped and looked confused and disappointed at the “enemies” before them. They were to be our bosses from then on. Four families including mine were picked out and ordered to walk following a mule wagon for several further kilometers into nowhere. The sun was pounding down on us mercilessly and we were not give water or food for this journey. Whoever collapsed was dragged into the wagon for a short rest.
The sheep station consisted of a huge barrack for the sheep, a few yurts, and a shearing hut. This was to be our new home. A fresh stream nearby was welcomed by us as a miracle. It quenched our thirst and hunger and how clean and refreshed I felt after so many day of confinement.
Our bosses did not allow us to waste much time. They awoke us at sunrise the next day, led us to the barracks, counted out sheep, gesticulated and shouted in broken Russian that we were to lead them to the open steppe for grazing. I was assigned to take care of five hundred sheep, all alone, and cautioned that I must bring them all back at the end of the day. Luckily, my flock knew their territory, so I followed them. To my horror, snakes, lizards and scorpions ran and slithered in all direction under my feet. I was afraid to sit down during the long hours. At least this new problem took my mind off the hunger and thirst. It was almost sunset when a horseman appeared and helped me direct my flock back to the barracks. The sheep were counted scrupulously at the gate by a herdsman who marked them off by making notches on a long stick; one notch for every ten. My daily works was rewarded with a thick slice of brown bread.
To supplement our diet, my mother discovered mushrooms which grew in abundance on the heaps of sheep dung and wild onions were found buried under stones. Milk and eggs were bartered for with the herdsmen. We had fresh air and water and life would have been tolerable if not somewhat pleasant but for the mosquitoes and tiny flies which tried to eat us alive. This relatively carefree life lasted until the end of May when our stream turned into a trickle and our bosses packed up their yurts, moving their families and flocks in search of better pasture. We also had to pick up our bundles and walk back to Sovhoz Karakol where many Polish “settlers” lived amid a few Kazakh families.
The camp consisted of four long barracks - quarters for the NKWD, a school building, a doctor’s office (no doctor or nurse), a store with empty shelves, and a post office. The inhabitants lived in squalid earth dug-outs, one room “apartments” called zemlankas, along the Karakol River’s banks. They contained no furniture of any kind just one window, a chimney and an entrance door. Loud speakers along the dirt road blasted propaganda from early morning until late at night. My mother and several other Polish women mixed dirt and water with their bare feet to make bricks to dry in the scorching sun. My father and other men labored with primitive tools on the construction of winter barracks for the sheep. My sister and I attended school to be trained as good communists. At home, our job was to provide food for our goat and three chickens, which had been bartered for our father’s suit. The Karakol River was the source of many treasures that washed up on its shores. Rubber boots and old shoes were converted into sandals, small fish and tadpoles for our chickens to eat and once in a while a piece of wood or branch for cooking fuel.
As winter was approaching quickly and we had no stored provisions, my mother and her friend decided to bribe a driver who delivered food for the privileged local leadership. He agreed and drove them to a communal farm forty kilometers away. They took a tremendous risk since an enterprise such as this without the permission of the NKWD could incur severe punishment. As it was, as soon as they made contact with the farmers they were arrested, questioned and accused of espionage. It took them all night to persuade the NKWD of their innocence. Released, my mother and her companion sat helplessly in the Colchoz one room shelter, situated on the dirt crossroads forty kilometers from our camp. They prayed for a miracle to take them back to our camp since so few people traveled in that direction. Two young Russians parked their truck and entered the room. They were shocked to see the women in this desolate place. When they learned about the circumstances which had forced them to leave their camp in search of provisions, they offered to give them a lift and two sacks of potatoes and some flour. They introduced themselves as fisherman from Balkasz Lake about 50 kilometers from Karakol. On arrival to the camp, my mother invited them to our zemlanka for a rest. Upon entering the room, they took off their hats and bowed towards the cross hung on the wall. From that day on they became our close friends. Often they made a detour through our camp to bring us some fish. On their way back, they would bring food from the restricted stores. During our school vacation they took Misia and me to spend some time with their families. We played with their children and learned that their bearded grandfather was the patriarch of the village. Every evening after work, the villagers would gather to pray together. They did not drink or smoke and seemed to live very contented lives isolated from communist Russia. Often I think of those generous people who helped us survive and wonder what the future held for them.
Kazakhstan’s climate is very extreme. It was sweltering hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. The first snows paralyzed our camp. The Buranes (storms) followed and buried us under meters of snow. The interior of our zemlanka was covered with icicles. We had been able to barter some wool from the Kazakhs and our stiff fingers were set to knitting anything we could sell until the home-spun wool ran out. The Kazakhs were well prepared for the harsh winter. They kept their homes warm with mysterious stacks of kiziaks. I figured out later what they were make of. Animal dung! An endless procession of “resettlers” followed the sleighs which delivered reed to the government officials in the hope of picking up a handful or two that fell to the ground to burn to melt snow into water and to warm themselves for a while. Many had died from cold and starvation and epidemics of typhoid fever. My mother had managed to save a few cups of flour, some potatoes and the last one of our chickens. Since she had become a pet, we avoided thinking about her destiny. Just before Christmas she did not return to her nest in the vestibule. Our search was in vain and we concluded that she must have lost her way in the snow. Our dinner menu was reduced to pierogis (potato dumplings) only.
Spring brought some hope to those who survived. We received a reply to numerous letters from some friends and a package of seeds arrived soon after. The virgin soil yielded an abundance of crops; enough to share with the less fortunate. Our bosses had plenty or work for the adults, taking advantage of the free labor. The children were called back to school. On Sundays, my friends would gather in our zemlanka (hut), which was situated away from the center of the camp. We had forbidden lessons in Polish and Countess Taida Dzieduszycha taught us French and English. To divert any suspicion, we sang and danced during breaks and Henek Ostafin, our virtuoso, played my violin. Unfortunately, we had to part before sunset as some of us had developed Nyctalopia due to a lack of vitamins and undernourishment and could not see in the dark.
When the Germans attacked the Russians, we witnessed complete chaos due to the Russian’s lack of preparation. Stalin changed his policies and joined the Allies. The Polish government, which was in exile in London, acted swiftly to secure our release from the Russian prisons and labor camps. As a result, the Polish Army was organized by General Anders who had been freed from the Lubianka prison in Moscow. When the news broke out, my father and all the other able bodied men enlisted in the army without hesitation. Some of the boys even added a few years to their ages so that they could join the troops. My mother, sister and I moved to another Kazakh town, Ajahus and struggled through yet another severe winter. My mother procured a paying job as a seamstress and, with other Polish women, engaged in sewing uniforms for Russian soldiers. My sister and I took care of our family’s food supplies. By now we had a Polish Center in the city. Its function was to register all the Polish families in the region and dispatch the list to the head office of the Polish Army in Buzuluk, Uzbekistan. The center also distributed very limited food supplies to the civilians by decreasing our soldier’s rations. Our only other source of food was the railway station’s restaurant, which was reserved for passengers only. We would wait for hours in the bitter cold for a train to arrive. Then we would mix with the crowd of people in the hope of getting a few ladles of soup or some bread.
One day, to our surprise, several Polish soldiers in British uniforms and white eagles (the Polish emblem) on their caps arrived at the station. Our Uncle Wladek was one of them. It was an unbelievable joy to see him alive. Our names on the list at the army headquarters had helped him find us. We spent many hours crying and relating the stories of both his and our ordeals. He had been accused of conspiracy and espionage, and beaten and tortured in the Tarnopol prison. When he would not agree to the accusations, he was put into solitary confinement and again beaten. The final verdict was twenty-five years of hard labor in the Siberian camp of Valivostok. His army pass was very short, so we had to part again. My mother was very concerned about his occasional coughing. In later years we found out that he had died in a military hospital from tuberculosis contracted in the Siberia prison. He rests in peace in Ramleh, Israel.
Soon after, my father sent us a telegraph to leave immediately to Lugovaja where he was stationed. The Russian authorities purposely delayed our departure. When we were finally able to leave Ajahus it was too late. My father’s unit had left for Persia, today’s Iran.
It was pouring cats and dogs in Lugovaja as the camp was being dismantled. We met many families who were in despair. They did not know what to do and where to look for help. My mother decided that it was no use staying in this place and we should go back to the railroad station where a Russian patrol and several Polish soldiers were loading freight cars with supplies for Krasnovodsk. To our amazement we saw our old friend, Henek Ostafin the virtuoso. Without a word he understood our intentions of following where our father had gone. When the guard marched away, he pointed to some steps to an open wagon. In gratitude, I handed him my precious violin. After all he was a much better violinist compared to me.
Our journey to Krasnovodsk was a nightmare. We were being smuggled in military transportation with five other families under a heavy awning. The Polish soldiers in charge of this conveyance knew about our existence and they shared their rations of food with us under the cover of darkness. When we arrived at the port of Krasnovodsk, we found they were only transporting soldiers to Persia at this time, so we were “graciously” given return tickets back to Uzbekistan. This was as far we were allowed to go. We could only thank the authorities that they had handled our situation so well.
In Kermine, Uzbekistan hundreds of human skeletons in rags were “camping” on the steppe fields. They poured in from all parts of Siberia looking for some hope. The Russians were occupied with their own problems and wanted to get rid of us, dead or alive. Supplies of food and shelter for our army were delayed by the Russians as hundreds of families just waited under an open sky.
The children, most of them orphans, were eventually sent to Karkin-Batasz, a village that had been abandoned by the Uzbeks. My mother was appointed to take care of them and some food was provided to us but items for personal hygiene and medical care were non-existent. I was fifteen at the time. The village was infested with mosquitoes, snakes, and scorpions and jackals howled frightening serenades all through the night. Epidemics of typhoid, dysentery and malaria decimated the children. One of the ruins of a hut in the village was filled daily with corpses.
Somehow despite malarial fevers the three of us survived this horror, but it weakened my mother tremendously. After a visit from Polish inspectors our camp was relocated immediately to a place full of trees by a river. Our clothes were thrown away and burned along with any other personal possessions and our hair was shaved completely. Men’s uniforms were given to us making us look like scarecrows. The soldiers would tease us by chiding “Comrade, give us a cigarette!” Our daily routine became strictly military, starting with morning reveille and exercises.
One day, to our surprise, General Anders came to visit us, his youngest “soldiers”. Somehow we managed to form a straight line and stood to attention. He passed along the long row and stopped at the end where stood the smallest and strangest looking creature, my sister (age 11). He took her in his arms and asked what he could do for her. “General, I need a smaller uniform. I can’t walk in this one” was her reply. The General carried her to the uniform supply center and ordered that her uniform be altered to fit. She met him at an officer’s dinner party in London years later and when she mentioned this incident, he remembered her and laughing said, “Girls are always girls!” No matter how our uniforms look, we were proud to wear them and tried our hardest to act like real soldiers.
Two months later, at last the time to finally leave Russia arrived. Since we were now registered as soldiers it was easier to leave. We boarded a filthy ship that was so crowded it was standing room only. We had no bathrooms, no water and no food for almost two days during our journey across the Caspian Sea. British soldiers who were stationed in Pahlevi, Persia, carried us ashore as we did not have the strength to walk. A tent city had been constructed alongside the beach for the soldiers with a few shacks for civilians to protect them from the sun. The availability of plentiful food instead of being a blessing was a death sentence to the starving crowd as we disembarked. Many people were so famished that they ate anything they could find. Their bodies were not able to digest the food properly and they died as a result. Only the strongest reached Teheran, Persia’s capital city. After delivering us, the soldiers left for Iraq for military training. Civilians were transported to India and many of the British colonies in Africa. Orphans and the members of our military school stayed in Persia.
In Isfahan, seventeen schools were established for all grade levels. Our lives in the ancient city were like a dream from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Spacious buildings with secluded gardens within tall walls were our boarding schools. Our bedrooms even had real beds! The dry climate allowed us to study outside in the shade of trees. We had lost many years of education and had to work very hard at our studies. Our soldiers donated half of their pay to support the schools and keep us secluded away from the atrocities of the war raging in Europe.
While we were sheltered in this way my father fought in Italy. One day, as his artillery unit was passing the town of Ancona, some soldiers were trying to extinguish a fire in the Polish army headquarters, and he heard someone shout the name “Brodniewicz”. The name sounded familiar and my father found out that he happened to be Jasio from Strusow who I had prayed for as a child in Strusow. Addresses were exchanged and Jasio wrote a letter to my mother searching for information about his family. As their correspondence continued, I was asked to write to him and we exchange occasional letters. From him I received many hard to come by books and writing materials.
One, Mrs. Kafel, our dear friend, paid us a visit in Isfahan. She had recently been reunited with her brother who was the superintendent of our schools. Her four sons were Polish soldiers in the Italian campaign. In 1940, Adas and Zbyszek had been deported like us to Karakol with their mother, while Stas and Olek had been sentenced to twenty-five years in a Russian prison. As we were reminiscing about those terrible experiences in the Soviet Union she burst into tears and confessed that it had been Zbyszek who had stolen our chicken all those years ago. His brother had been dying from typhoid and the chicken had saved his life! We hugged her, kissed her and reassured her there were no hard feelings. My mother added, “Aren’t we happy to have all survived.”
With sadness we said goodbye to Isfahan. We had spent three happy years in this city regaining some of our childhood. In 1945 the war ended and although I had been given the opportunity to continue my studies in Beirut at the American University, my parents made the decision to reunite in Palestine (Israel) in the hope of rebuilding our lives somewhere under the sun. Poland was now ruled by communists, and there was no returning to our homeland. In Palestine I officially became a soldier in the Polish army and was trained as a draftswoman working for the Department of Engineering.
My family was deployed to great Britain to work and live at Witley Camp in Surrey with employment offered to my father in the pay and records offices. We stayed there until 1949. I hoped to continue with my studies, but there were many demobilized soldiers who had priority to attend colleges and universities. Then, as destiny would have it, Jasio Brodniewicz appeared at the camp. Obviously our destiny was to be married.
Our life was not easy in war devastated England. Food and clothing were still rationed and houses were almost impossible to rent. A variety of courses were offered to the Polish soldiers so that they could learn new skills but most of them took any work they could find. My husband, a forestry engineer, started his career as a factory worker. I managed to take some courses that enabled me to find work as a comptometer (a calculating device used before computers were invented) operator in the Smith’s Aviation Company. The company produced the precision instruments for the first supersonic airplane, the Concord.
Making many sacrifices, Jasio and I were saving every penny to buy a little house after our daughter, Christine, was born. Our home became a meeting place for many lonely and destitute friends who’s families were struggling behind the Iron Curtain. We became very close by helping and supporting each other.
The Polish government in exile continued on with their activities and London was the center of Polish education, press and religious life. Polish Saturday schools were organized for our children, as were local parishes. Poets and artists would visit larger groups of fellow countrymen scattered all over England and Scotland.
My parents decided to immigrate to the United Stated in 1960 and we followed them eight years later. It was not easy to say goodbye to the many Polish and English friends we had made as we left for New York City. We all adapted well to another new country. Christine graduated from college where she met her husband.
Forty years later I find myself along with my sister, surrounded with the loving care of my daughter, her husband, four grandchildren (three happily married), and four great-grand children in Maple Valley, Washington. My only regret is that my husband did not live long enough to enjoy them as much as I do.
It has been extremely difficult to revisit my Siberian experiences after 69 years. I still recall them very vividly. The struggles and the depravation of my parents were never revealed to me as we lived through the direst experiences of our lives. I feel that the distinctions I recently received from the Republic of Poland, the Cross of Chivalry-Order of Merit and The Cross of Siberian Exiles, are belated tributes to them. While writing about the terror, the violence and the injustice brought upon innocent people, I stopped often to consider if all this can possibly be grasped in a country of law and order and plenty.
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords