(Julian's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
I was born April 12, 1922 in a small village in southeastern Poland called Rozanka. Rozanka was in the county of Kamionka Strumilova and in the province of TarnopoI. I was the youngest of 15 children, of which seven survived. I had four brothers - Rudolf, Jan, Ludwig, and Victor, and two sisters - Karolina and Rose. The village that we all came from was near a major city called Lwow. Lwow has always been called the "Little Venice of Poland". We came from a family of farmers. My father Franciszek was a farmer and, like most men in their youth, served in the Polish army and fought in WWI. My brother Jan also did his military duty in the same war. My father was injured in the war and this injury would later contribute to his death. I was only three years old when he died.
In 1924, at the age of 25, my sister Karolina made the long trip to Canada from Poland. She would be the first from our family to see the other side of the world. In 1928 Karolina sponsored my two brothers, Rudolf and Jan, for immigration to Canada. Rudolf married, had five children and made his home in Moon Lake. He passed away in 1980. Jan died in 1943. One by one, the older siblings left and only Ludwig, Viktor and I remained on the farm with our mother. Our life was good and we had very little needs. In 1938, we purchased a piece of land in Radziechow that was about 10 km from where we lived. In 1939, we moved to the new place. We had plans for the future and how we would divide the land amongst us three brothers. We seeded crops in the spring and then harvested everything ourselves. We owned all our own machinery, such as a binder that cut and threw the ready wheat. We had a thrashing machine for chopping up all the straw for cattle feed. We had about seven cows and three horses, which was a sufficient number to own for any farmer. We woke up to our own roosters crowing, chickens, and pigs. There was not much we wanted, for we were very self-sufficient. In September of 1939, everything changed for us in Poland.
On the September 1, Germany invaded Poland. They concentrated their bombings on larger cities in the west, destroying railways and bridges. The Polish army fought them with everything it had, but the Polish artillery was no match for the more modernized German warfare. By September 17th, Poland was hit with yet another attack. This one came from the east, as the Soviet Red army crossed the Polish borders with their own attack. People were confused as to what was happening, as Russian propaganda promised liberation for the eastern dwellers. Some thought Russia came to help us fight the Germans, but it did not take long to realize this was not to be. On February 10th 1940, our life changed forever. What was an ordinary day in the cold of winter quickly became a nightmare and difficult to believe it was happening .The Soviets arrived early in the morning and pounded on our door, waking everyone up immediately. They had lists with our names, and checked to make sure we were all here. They held adult males at gunpoint, giving women at most one hour to pack what they could carry.
They ordered us to harness up our horses, for they knew we had a sled. We packed our belongings and the three of us – my mother, brother Victor and myself climbed up onto the sled for the journey – where? Only God knew. We traveled to the nearest railway station in a town called Cholojow (now in Ukraine). People were already starting to arrive from other farms, under supervision of the Russian soldiers. There were a number of cattle cars waiting for our arrival. We were taken from the sled into the cold and frigid boxcars. These were cattle cars converted into human cargo transports. There was nothing inside but double-layered bunks made from wood and an aisle between them. Families picked a spot on the bunk for their journey and possessions were left in the aisle. A wood burning stove was in the middle of each car, along with some firewood. The bathroom facilities were an open hole in the floor of the boxcar. Once all the people were recorded and in the cars, the doors were bolted shut from the outside. There was no way anyone could get out or escape. There were no windows except for small opening near the ceiling of the car. These were too small for a body to fit through. During the journey, the wheels of the trains were changed to accommodate the different track gauge in Russia.
We traveled in this coffin of souls for three weeks, into the wasteland of Russia, into the Arkhangelsk region. Finally, we arrived in Kotlas. Kotlas was the gateway to northern Russia and a transition place where deportees were divided into groups sent to various, remote camps. We were taken to a holding place; possibly a church or something. Sleighs were brought in, and people were packed onto the sleighs. Many of us walked behind the transports. The weather was still cold and we would travel for about 300 more miles. At night, we would stop at camp barracks along the way and would get a piece of black bread and some "kipiatok" (boiling water) or tasteless soup.
This road took us through dense forests. There was nothing to see in any direction except bush. Finally, we arrived in a camp called Nizhnamuchna. There was nothing but a huge barrack and some small buildings. People had obviously been here before us. Exhausted, we finally reached the place the Soviets decided would be our home. I was placed in one camp with my mother, but Viktor was moved to another camp farther down the road, by himself.
Upon our arrival, they wasted no time in putting us to work. On the first day, we were sent out to the bush to cut logs. Mother remained in the barracks, as she was too old and weak to be of any use to the Soviets. As time went on, she looked after whatever she could inside the barracks, to make our life as comfortable as she could.
Within a few days, the supervisors asked for carpenters and which one of us could do this work. They needed men to build smaller barracks to house 4-5 families each. I had never done any carpentry work to speak of, but told them I had. They hired me and in the springtime, we started on the new barracks. The only tools we had were axes. Axes did everything. There were people in this camp that were from my village, and we worked closely together. When the barracks were finally built, we were the first four families to take possession. Having some familiar faces close by from Poland made our life here seem a little more bearable. At least we could share the same pain of loss, thrown into this "inhuman land" of strangers. The barracks had nothing. Four walls and a window. This was home! Beds were set up as bunks, the elderly took the bottom, and the younger and fiter took the tops. There were no mattresses. Our camp was close to a creek and someone before us had cut down all the weeds and soft grass along the shoreline of the creek bed. Over the winter, this turned into a soft hay. We gathered it and laid it on our hard wooden bunks. We were given bricks to build a stove in the barrack. There was no shortage of wood to burn. That is the only thing Russia had that was free - lots of wood. A metal plate was set over the bricks and we boiled water and cooked whatever we could on top of metal plate.
Food was a real issue. The camp had a supply store and a kitchen. Those with money could stand in line with their rubles and buy a bit of food, but the rest were fed black bread and soup. The food was rationed for everyone and everyone lined up for it.
All summer we built barracks, but when winter came we were sent back into the forests, cutting logs. We were given no special clothing for this work, wearing what we had brought with us. A special type of boot called "valonki" was sold in the store, which we had to purchase as well. These were heavy felt boots made from sheep's wool. They were extremely thick and protected your legs and feet from the dampness and cold. The logs we cut, then transported down the Dvina River (or Northern Dvina) to wherever they were required. This river flows past Kotlas and then turns northeast, and empties into Dvina Bay, an arm of the White Sea, just below Arkhangelsk.
I was only 18 years old and I was in charge of my barrack, and of reporting to the NKVD (local police) commandant the status of people in my barrack. If someone was sick, could not go to work, or had to be somewhere that day, I had to know. One of the families in the barrack was a neighbour from home, and they had four children. One was a 16-year-old daughter. Her family decided one day to send her to the nearest kolkhoz with some rubles, in hope of purchasing some food. I knew this but did not tell the NKVD of their plans. The young girl went to the kolkhoz, called Kornuloff, on her own and the rest of us went to work as usual, as though nothing was any different. Well as luck would have it, the NKVD spotted her as she was returning from the kolkhoz.
The commandant immediately sent for me to report to him at his office. I did not waste any time reporting to him. I entered his office where he was sitting at his desk. A loaded revolver laid on top of the desk. After angry words at my neglecting to report this girl leaving the camp, I was arrested. He put me in a small, windowless, dark room and locked the door. I was very cold there. His partner then came, handcuffed me, and told me we were going on a trip. My mind was racing, for I had no idea what punishment this would bring for me. He mounted a horse and tied me with a rope and I followed behind, still handcuffed. I walked the distance to the town of Tojma ( Wierchnieja Tojma) which was around 40 kilometres away.
Here I was put into a basement holding cell of a jail. The next morning angry NKVD officers scolded me. Their biggest fear of what I had done in not reporting the young girl was that she might have decided to run away. They said if this had been a man instead of a young girl, he would be on his way to Finland by now. God forbid that someone should seek freedom in this Godforsaken hole in the bush.
They took me to a clearing in the bush and tied me to a birch tree. They were going to execute me right there. All of a sudden, the officer who had initially arrested me showed up. He ordered the men to stop the shooting of Julian Lang Frankowicz. (In Russia, a man takes on his father's first name as his last - my father’s first name was Franciszek). He told them that I had done wrong, but I was a good worker and had never given them trouble. Therefore, they untied me and told me how lucky I was and to head back to camp where I had come from. I did not waste any time leaving them. I was on foot and starving. I had not had any food now for three days. I do not know how far I walked before I spotted a man on a sleigh. He had been cutting birch branches for cattle fodder and the sleigh was full. As he came closer to me, I recognized him as a Russian fellow from the area. He slowed down and told me to get on the sleigh. We drove to his house, where he was kind enough to make me about 4 cups of kipiatok (boiled water) so that I could warm myself from the cold. After I was a bit more comfortable, I started out on foot again. I walked in the dark. About halfway home, I heard some sounds and saw some lights off the road, in a clearing. I decided to go and see if I could get some help. I came across a barrack and knew some of the people inside. They let me stay the night in the warmth of their accommodations and, in the morning, I set out on foot again.
When I arrived at my camp, everybody was shocked and excited to see me. They were sure I had been executed. My mother was especially happy to see me.
We remained in this camp until late summer of 1941. In June, Germany double-crossed Stalin and invaded Russia. Stalin got nervous and needed more men to help in his battle fighting the Germans. He decided to join the Allies and in so doing, he came to an agreement on an amnesty for all Poles imprisoned in Russia with Polish General Sikorski, who was leader of the Polish-government-in-exile in London, England. An NKVD official called everyone together in our camp where we were told of the amnesty and set free.
We started getting our families together to figure out a plan to get out of here. We packed our belongings and set off to Kornuloff. There was a creek close by and we cut down some logs and built ourselves a raft. The raft was big enough to carry the old and weak, mothers and children, and all our possessions. The men walked along the shore, hanging onto the rope that was tied to the raft full of people. We followed the creek to Tojma, where we let the raft go. There were many tugboats in Tojma that helped push the logs down the Dvina River. We were able, with all our rubles pooled, to hire a boat to take us south to Kotlas.
After reaching Kotlas, we were able to buy transports on a boxcar out of there. The train would take us to Buzuluk where the Polish army had set up an enlistment centre. When we arrived, we were told they were full. We had to travel farther south. We remained in the boxcars and were issued new tickets to carry us closer to the next army recruitment centre. I am not sure where we ended up, but it was cotton country and there were many kolkhozes (collective farms) in the area that hired people to pick cotton from the fields. First, the cotton was selected from the bushes, and then the stalks were cut and removed. In return for work in the cotton fields, we had a place to sleep, a mud hut. The weather was much warmer here than what we had been used to for the past year and a half. There was no money, but we were given some grain and somehow managed to survive these primitive conditions. While working in the kolkhoz, we were notified of an army contingent heading further south. Viktor and I arranged to leave right away.
I enlisted with the Polish forces on Russian soil on February 21st 1942. We erected one of the first army tents. Soon after arrival, I got sick with typhus. I met Victor Szabunio who was also sick with typhus. We were quarantined in a hospital for two weeks. The day after our release from the hospital, we found out that we would be in a convoy heading west to a port in Turkmenistan called Krasnovodsk, where we would board a ship that would take us out of Russia. We travelled on through Tashkent, which was the capitol city of Uzbekistan. At Krasnovodsk, goods and coal ships were transporting soldiers of the Polish army and Polish citizens to Pahlavi (now called Bander Anzali), a port in Persia (Iran).
Viktor and I arrived in Pahlavi on Palm Sunday, March 24th 1942. I was enlisted in Polish forces under British command. My identification was Lance-Corporal 1922/1II. I was first enlisted in 9th Medium Artillery, then transferred to 10th Medium Artillery (Light Aid Detachment, Type B). Our army later became known as the Polish Second Corps.
We followed the same path as thousands of other Polish soldiers did: from Pahlavi to Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, then Italy. We fought at Monte Cassino, opening the road to Rome for the Allies. I was assigned to the Heavy Artillery Unit, where we aligned our weapons with the target. The battle for Monte Cassino was the most exhausting action in my life, and it is etched in my memory forever.
I was a member of the Heavy Artillery Unit. We entered the so-called "Valley of Death". The place was an assembly point where the army had stored ammunition, fuel, water and food. From there, every 3 hours, a tractor, pulling a heavy artillery gun with 10 soldiers to man it, took a prearranged position. The basin and positions were constantly camouflaged with smoke.
On May 11, 1944, 11 o'clock at night, with a signal from a fired rocket, began the assault that unleashed "Hell on Earth". Eleven hundred Allied guns, all the artillery of the 5th and the 8th Army, including the artillery of the 2nd Corps, shelled all enemy positions. The first attack failed, so we started again on May 13th.
The range of the cannons at our disposal was 22 km., provided there were four rounds per minute, but we loaded 6-7 rounds, so the barrels became so hot that some separated from the canons. They simply fell off. It was a miracle that those who were firing and loading the canons were not killed. During the offensive, we were all so exhausted that, at one point, a blast from a shot threw my sleeping friend from his place and he did not even wake up. I was so exhausted that I wanted to die. Fortunately, we persevered in the fight for victory.
When the war ended. I decided to leave Italy and go to the United Kingdom. I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1946. I stayed there for one year, driving an ambulance for a military hospital. I was discharged from the army in Scotland. In 1947, my brother Victor and I boarded a ship called "Acquitania" and, on July 1st, we arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Canada. My sister Karolina had sponsored Viktor and me.
When we arrived in Alberta, we began working on our sister’s farm near Drumheller. Later on I went to work with my brother Rudolf (who came to Canada before the war) cutting trees near Moon Lake. In 1949, I bought a truck and with it, I began hauling boards from the forest to Edmonton.
In 1951, I met Janina Kuzio and we were married on November 24th of the same year. We settled in Edmonton and raised two sons: Henry and Ted, and one daughter Helen. Now our children have their own families and we are proud grandparents of ten grandchildren.
I became a part of the Polish Community in Edmonton. Since 1950, I have been an active member of the Polish Combatants Association. I actually joined this organization while I was still in Italy. For my work in the Polish Combatants Association, I received three medals: bronze, silver and gold. I worked for the Polish Credit Union that rewarded me with a gold medal for my work in the Polish community of Edmonton. In 1978, the Canadian government presented me with the Cross of Merit.
Text by: Julian Lang
Edited by: Zofia Kamela & Helena Fita
Victor Lang, ?, ?, ?, Julian Lang
Julian in Scotland, after the war
Julian, on the farm in Alberta
10 PAC badge
Julian, with his wife and children
A gathering of the entire family
For my participation in the battles in WWII, I was awarded the following medals and distinctions:
1. Polish Bronze Cross of Merit
2. Polish Army Medal
3. Polish Cross of Monte Cassino
4. British Defence Medal
5. British War Medal
6. Italian Star of Defense (1939- 45)