NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
From the older people of the village we built up a picture of the history of their part of the world from before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. We were told that the people living there had a relatively comfortable lifestyle as there was plenty of food grown and lots of cattle, sheep and horses. Seemingly the population was self-sufficient with no fear of starvation. After the revolution the communist policy of establishing huge communal farms changed everything and life was never the same again. The Bolsheviks declared that everyone must work and their slogan was “If you don’t work you don’t eat”.
Before 1917 there were roughly four kinds of people looking after the land. At the top were the large estate owners who were usually the aristocracy, then there were the farm owners who owned their own land. Next came the farm labourers who didn’t own any land but worked on the estate and farms, living in tied cottages, usually being supplied with food and receiving some wages at the end of the year. The fourth group were labourers too but lazy, ignorant and envious and not of good character.
When the Bolsheviks gained power and commenced to establish their communal farms, many experienced farmers were against the idea. Many of the estate owners managed to flee from Russia and large numbers of them settled in France. All the land in Russia was taken over by the new regime and rearranged into huge farms. If people were against these new plans and spoke out too forcibly they could just be removed and shot, as many of them were. Of course the poor lazy labourers who had never owned anything were in agreement with Bolshevik plans as they hoped to benefit by them. They were the ones to support the new regime and do their bidding. They would quickly report anyone they heard criticising the Bolsheviks and these dissidents were often taken away and shot against the wall or sent to the dreadful Labour Camps. The costly new machinery that the farms had to borrow from the government always had to be paid for no matter what. One way and another, Communal Farms just did not work and when there were poor harvests in the late 1920s and early 1930s, famine struck. We were told horrific stories by people who lived through these years. When food became really scarce people began to eat cats and dogs. When these disappeared we were told that some people even ate babies.
After some time passed we were given a bit more freedom of movement and allowed to visit some places nearby, such as the railway station at Szczerbakty, two lakes and a village occupied by Kazakhs (natives of Kazakhstan). My mother decided to walk to the KGB office in Szczerbakty where she hoped to find out what had happened to my father. For some reason she wanted to go alone so we waited anxiously for her return. At last I could wait no longer and set out to meet her. I hadn’t walked very far when I saw her coming towards me, crying. She had been told that father had been given an eight year prison sentence but she was not told where he was detained. I tried to comfort her by reassuring her that we would survive this terrible time and one day be reunited as a family again. With this news we returned to the village to share it with my sisters and young cousin. The next few days were particularly difficult to bear as our spirits were very low. During that first summer we managed to gather a large store of dried Piołum (wormwood) along with straw and dried animal droppings which was the only fuel available for people.
The family we stayed with were quite friendly to us and were glad of this fuel which we shared with them for the one stove in the house. We kept gathering all the fuel we could thinking of the severe winter to come. Apart from providing the fuel for the house we gave our landlord different articles we had managed to bring with us from Poland. Of course as weeks went by we ran out of anything to give them and then they were not so keen in sharing their home with us. One day they shocked us by asking us to leave and find somewhere else to live. We had become used to this house and were dismayed with the idea of having another upheaval in our lives. Fortunately it did not take us long to find new accommodation. A couple with a five year old son, living nearby, agreed to have us in their “spare” room. They were a younger, happier pair than our previous landlords and perhaps took us into their house more in kindness than for any thought of material gain. They did not expect us to give them anything in the way of rent but knew we were of good character and would help them in any way we could. Then of course there was the matter of the fuel we had collected throughout the summer. As I remember it lay in a huge heap, roughly eight metres long, two metres high and three metres deep. Did our old landlord think we would just leave this bounty for him? Did he think it would be too much work and trouble for us to move it all to our new home? Everyone knew it was ours as they had seen us gathering it. In the end we managed to borrow a kind of barrow and took it, load by load, to our new lodging, luckily not far. The old landlord said nothing but he must have been unhappy as he had stored hardly any fuel for himself.
Our new accommodation was, of course, similar to the previous but at least we now had our own primitive stove in our room, which was a blessing as winter was now approaching. Winter started with cold frosty days, then snow began to fall and soon we had to dig our way out of the house. Our miserable accommodation consisted of one room in this two roomed house. The front door of the house opened directly into a corner of our room and then along the wall from it was a door leading into the other room where our “landlord”, his wife and child lived. When anyone from this family wanted to go in or out of the house they had to pass through the room we occupied. I don’t remember having any furniture, only planks of wood which we made into makeshift beds and also used them for sitting on. The floor was of clay and the stove did not have an oven. Water had to be fetched from the well which was about eight metres from the front door. Early in the winter the wind blew the snow all around the houses, piling it up to a considerable height, even covering the windows and blocking our path to the well.
Starving day after day was wearing us down. On one occasion after nightfall my friend Josef Olszewski and I decided to do something about it. We knew that potato es had been gathered that autumn and were stored in a large heap some distance from the village awaiting to be distributed among the farm workers within a day or two. We equip ped ourselves with a sack each and in the darkness proceeded in the direction of the potato stash. The walk was swift and full of promise. Being young it did not take us too long to reach our target. Bending down and reaching out to claim our first potatoes, we suddenly heard a dog barking loudly from a nearby small hut. Within second s someone from the same direction discharged a gun. That was enough for us. We ran like the wind back to our house and were only too glad that there were no repercussions from our escapade. We never tried to raid the potato stash again.
We had written to our friends and neighbours back in Poland, telling them where we were and what conditions were like. Even although living under Russian occupation made life difficult for everyone these friends were good enough to send us a few food parcels which also included some tobacco which we could exchange for food. These parcels were a godsend as we had so very little to sustain us.
During that winter we were virtually snowed in with no work, no prospects and with only a little flour and potatoes stored. A very depressing time indeed. I remembered that when the huge combine harvesters had cut the wheat they often left a narrow band still standing on one side of the field. With the machine being so wide the driver must have thought it uneconomical to harvest that last thin strip. These fields were some distance from the village, but there the snow was only about two feet deep as the wind was continually blowing at it. With some wheat still standing, sticking up through the snow, I would walk there with some difficulty to do a bit of harvesting of my own. I cut the heads of the stalks with a knife and filled up a sack with them. When full I trudged back to our house and we emptied the sack onto the clay floor and began threshing the wheat stalks with a homemade flail that I had made. We kept hitting the stalk until all the ears of the wheat had fallen off. Then with difficulty we gathered up the ears and stored them carefully. I repeated this activity of collecting the heads from the wheat stalks and threshing them for the ears until there were enough ears to make it worthwhile to go to the mill is Szczerbakty with them. I set out on foot, pulling a sledge carrying the precious sack of wheat to walk the few miles to the mill where the ears were ground into flour. I think I managed that winter to gather enough wheat to visit the mill three or four times. Once or twice I was even lucky enough to get a lift into Szczerbakty on one of the farm vehicles. Anyway I kept gathering the wheat when weather permitted until there was none left.
It was a long hard and often boring winter. We had to stay indoors most of the time as the weather conditions were too harsh outside and we had hardly any reason to go outdoors anyway except of course to visit the well and our “toilet”. As a matter of fact there were no such things as toilets except one ghastly contraption at the farm buildings which was really no more than a hole in the ground and which smelt to high heaven. As most people had a barn built beside their houses in which to keep their cow, pig or few sheep they just went in there. Having no barn to ourselves we just used a concealed place behind a barn. Enough said.
One day when I had been outdoors for some reason I found the tips of my fingers had gone white. Coming inside I waited for them to return to their normal colour but they didn’t. Blisters formed on each finger and I realised I was suffering from frostbite. I was lucky because in time the blisters burst and new skin formed underneath and my fingertips made a complete recovery. We were all very thin by this time and suffering from malnutrition. Zbyszek developed an ulcer on his foot and I had one on my arm. They contained p us and didn’t heal up until the following summer. Some of my teeth showed signs of decay at this time so I visited a clinic in Szczerbakty where a Russian lady dentist had a look at them. She apologised to me for not having the proper equipment or material to attend to my teeth properly but she patched them up as best she could. She told me she had also been deported from elsewhere in Russia to this area because her husband was in prison for some political reason.
And so the winter progressed. My mother still managed a little work on her sewing machine but because of the weather and all the snow there was nothing to do outside. We were starving with only a very limited diet of flour and potatoes. Very occasionally we might obtain a little milk or a little bit of pork fat.
One day in late winter, when everything was still covered in snow, we heard that the cobbler would be vacating the house he occupied. His drinking and quarrelling had led to him making too many enemies and he had decided to move away from the village completely. We, along with some Polish friends, acted quickly and approached the cobbler. We offered him some money that we had managed to save and he agreed for us to move in as soon as he moved out. It wasn’t much of a house and some villagers even told us it would fall down in the spring when its frozen walls thawed out. Again the house only had two rooms but each room had its own front door. When we first moved in, the position was that the five of us occupied one room and our friends the other. Our friends were Mrs. Olszewska with her sixteen year old son Josef and fourteen year old daughter Halina. With them came Mrs. Niwczyk with her two little daughters Małgosia and Hela, aged roughly three and seven. You may think that this was a peculiar move to make and not much to our advantage as our living space was more cramped than ever but you would be wrong.
The great improvement was that now we felt in our own space, only sharing the house with Polish friends, so we were more independent and free. My family felt we had achieved something and made progress. Both rooms having their own front doors meant that no longer did we have anyone traipsing through our room to get across to theirs. All of us in the house enjoyed the feeling that we now living in a tiny bit of Poland.
Again there was the problem of our heap of fuel, or what was left of it. It was essential for our survival so we had to bring it to our “new” house but we left some for our old landlord. The actual removal into our new house was probably the easiest of my life as it was only a distance of about thirty five metres and we had hardly any belongings, in fact, next to nothing.
We settled down and the winter dragged on. About the only bit of excitement was the arrival of a letter from Poland to anyone in our house. Every bit of the news was shared, digested and talked about among us all. Every day we had a fire on to keep us warm which was a great comfort to us in these cold, cold days. At night time, when we were trying to sleep, we had to let the fire go out to save fuel and then the temperature went down and down. We were so cold it was difficult to sleep. By morning the inside walls of our house were completely white with frost. It was time to get up and put the fire on, which was the highlight of our miserable day. With the fire on the temperature inside our room began to rise and the frost on the walls melted leaving them wet. By evening the walls had dried up considerably but then it was time to let the fire go out and the whole procedure would recommence. Our primitive stove was excellent as it had a flat metal top to put two cooking pots on, that is, if you had anything to cook. It also had a metal pipe coming out of it to carry the smoke up to the flue. Anyone who knows anything about stoves will know that these chimney pipes became very hot and are a splendid source of heat.
One day we heard quite a commotion outside so I quickly went to see what was going on. About a hundred metres from the village a wandering cow was being attacked and torn apart by a pack of hungry wolves. My immediate thought was that if I could frighten the wolves they might run off leaving a bit of the cow for me. I quickly tied on my feet the very roughly made skis I had fashioned for myself from two planks from the side of an old barrel and set off to investigate. I was determined to make the most of this unexpected opportunity. When I had gone about fifty metres I let the wolves know I was coming by shouting and bawling and waving my arms about. It was amazing how much of the poor cow they had already devoured and when they realised I was approaching they seemed to lift any parts of the cow that still remained and ran off. What they did leave behind was the head and I was delighted with this marvellous bounty. I lifted it up and trudged happily home with it. There was great joy in the house on my return. Plans were made to use the head wisely and we decided to use the bulk of it to make soup, adding our own pasta and some potatoes. To us it was delicious. The best of course was the tongue which we cooked separately. Nothing was wasted you can be sure.
And so the long hard winter eventually ended. About March the temperature rose quite quickly and the snow swiftly disappeared. We anxiously watched the walls of our house for signs of deterioration or even collapse but were greatly relieved to find they were just drying out and in a reasonable condition with no signs of falling down.
Soon work began again on the farm. Tractors were quickly brought out to plough the land. It was absolutely essential that the seeds of the new crops were sown early, while the soil was still moist with the melted snow. Remember it never rained in this part of the world, or anyway I never saw any. In their haste to get the seed sown quite often the tractors would get stuck in the mud where the soil was still too wet. A large machine with caterpillar tracks was kept especially to go round the fields and pull these tractors back onto firmer ground. The villagers were busy at various jobs all around the farm but we were not offered any work at all. No one seemed to be responsible for us or our welfare.
As soon as we could we cleared a bit of land beside our house and sowed some potatoes there. We made some clay bricks for ourselves and gathered some odd bits of material and managed to build a porch at our front door. The idea behind this scheme was to give us a little more space and we knew this extra door to our house would help to prevent the driving snow being blown into the house when winter returned. Then we managed to obtain a very small piglet from a neighbour who possessed a sow. We divided the porch in two, one half for us to walk through and the other half for the pig. With the summer approaching we tried to live more and more out of doors where it was pleasanter than the cramped, and now hot, conditions indoors. We were able to build a rough stove outside where we could do any cooking and this kept the house cooler.
A few miles away there was a fresh water lake in which there were fish so one day I set off, I think with Zbyszek, to try my luck. I had made a very rough fishing rod and was full of youthful optimism. Nearby the lake there was a communal farm and a village, called MAŁARDY, occupied by Kazakhs, who rather resembled the Chinese race. Zbyszek and I were reasonably successful with our fishing. Firstly, we managed to catch some small fish which we used as bait and went on to catch something bigger including pike. We got into conversation with a few of the locals who were quite friendly and learned that not far away was a salt lake where a deposit of salt, about two or three centimetres thick, lay encrusted on the bottom. This information was of great interest to us as we had been deprived of salt for so long. Another thing one of them mentioned was that in the village there was one man in charge of milling the grain and as we still had some wheat ears left I thought I could perhaps get our wheat milled there rather than taking it to Szerbakty, which was further away. Unlike the mill in Szerbakty, which was run by electricity or a petrol engine, this mill was run by water power. A small stream poured out of the lake and the villagers had built a flour mill beside it with a water wheel. They built a dam to raise the level of the water in the lake and to save all the melting snow in the springtime from running off in the stream. This excess water was used sparingly from time to time to turn the wheel of the mill. We returned home well pleased. Our fish were a wonderful addition to our miserable diet and the news of the salt and miller gave us something to think about.
Shortly after this outing Zbyszek and I made our expedition to the salt lake and nothing untoward happened. The water at the bank of the lake was only about 30 centimetres deep so it was easy for us gather the salt. We just stood in the water and using a tool I had brought with me, broke up some of the crust of salt into smallish pieces. We filled up our bag with these pieces and set off back home. We had more than enough for ourselves so were able to share it out among our friends. About a couple of weeks later five Kazakhstan men came to our village with a horse and cart. They had brought salt for sale, charging either roubles or flour. We, of course, didn ’t need any but this was how the Russian villagers obtained salt. One of these Kazakhs took a fancy to a friend of ours, Mrs Grinkiewicz, who at that time must have been in her forties. She had with her in Siberia her eighteen year old daughter and her two younger sons. Her poor husband was in a Russian labour camp. The Kazakh promised her all sorts of things if she would come away with him back to his village where he said he would look after her. He said that she was “beautiful and cuddly” and his feelings “were running high towards her”. Mrs. Grinkiewicz, who was good-looking and a little on the plump side, thanked him civilly and declined his offer. He had to leave our village a very disappointed man.
On one of our fishing trips to the fresh water lake we spoke to a Kazakh about our bag of wheat. He assured us that he would speak to the miller and arrange with him to mill our grain. The deal was that on a certain day we should bring two packets of tobacco, which had been sent to us from Poland, and he should have one and the other would be for the miller. When the day came mother, Kazia and I set off, pushing a barrow containing our bag of wheat and after walking the long way to Małardy made straight for the house of our friendly Kazakh. He welcomed us and said everything had been arranged with the miller. He asked us for both packets of tobacco and said he would share it with the miller later. We left him and headed for the mill and were surprised to find the mill unoccupied with no sign of the miller anywhere. What were we to do? We didn’t know where the miller lived but we asked in the village and were directed to his house. He was surprised to see us and hear our story because he had never heard anything about us before. Moreover he was not interested in us or our grain especially as we had now no means of paying him.
As you can imagine we were mad at having been cheated so marched back to the culprit’s house. Only his wife was there now and told us her husband had gone off to work in the fields. My mother looked passed this woman, through the doorway into the miserable house. There was next to nothing inside but there was a chest standing against a wall. My mother strode into the house, opened the chest and looked in. Inside was practically empty but lying at the bottom were our two packets of tobacco. Mother scooped them up and we left the house. Meanwhile the wife just stood by silently, perhaps too surprised to utter a word of protest. No doubt she knew of the dishonesty of her husband.
Back we went to the miller and brought him up to date with our story. He now changed his mind and agreed to grind our corn in exchange for the two small packets of tobacco. It was a very slow process and took a long time. As there was only a little water in the stream the first thing the miller had to do was open some contraption which allowed more water to flow from the lake. The level of the water in the stream began to rise and soon the mill wheel began to turn. We watched fascinated while the ground floor poured in a slow trickle from the large circular stones which were grinding it. It was primitive and slow but effective and we were happy and satisfied when at long last we were able to return back to our village with our small bag of flour.
With the better weather life became a little easier for us. The farm manageress was sending some of the young men on an expedition to a forest to obtain timber which was essential in constructing roofs of buildings. I was invited to join this party. There were five or six of us, each one in charge of a pair of oxen pulling a cart. They weren’t proper carts, just two pairs of wheels with axles joined together by a short piece of wood. Once having reached the forest we would replace the short piece of wood by a much longer piece. Anyway we set off with our meagre provisions of some bread, flour, tea and a large lump of sugar and some food for the oxen. We didn’t use reins. A smack on their rump started the oxen off and to stop we just jumped off and gave them a shout. They understood the Russian words for “right” and “left” and would move accordingly when they heard these words being shouted out. The road was narrow, fairly smooth and hard as it was only a path that had been beaten down across the flat country side over the centuries. Because of wear and tear over the years by human feet, animal hooves and wheels the road was now about thirty centimetres lower down than the surface of the surrounding ground. This created quite a problem when you met anything coming from the opposite direction but luckily this wasn’t very often. Not all of the surface of the road was hard, there were patches where it was soft and sandy and that caused problems too.
We travelled slowly all day then stopped in the evening to rest and sleep for the night. Tea was made and the larger lump of sugar broken up to give us each a share. Inevitably some got more than others but no one quarrelled about that. The custom was to break a piece of sugar off your lump and place it, not in your mug of tea, but in your mouth. You held it there while you drank your tea.
On the evening of the second day we at last reached the forest of straight pine trees. Next to it was a settlement of wooden houses, which were more superior to our house made of clay bricks. There was a saw mill where people worked preparing the timber. Apart from the Russians living and working here, there were people who had been on the same train as us from Poland, old friends and acquaintances from my old school and town. They were slightly better off than us having been placed in this settlement as there was work for them to do and housing of a better quality. Among these people were the wife and two daughters of the minister of our local Greek Orthodox Church. He had been arrested and deported somewhere for the crime of being a minister. Also I met a Mr. Sikorski whose father had been arrested because he was a business man. He, in fact, owned the local off-licence shop. Most importantly I met Mr. Sanok who had worked in the town council offices. He knew my father well and was to play a crucial part in my story in the months to come. Remember his name. I didn’t have much time to talk with these people but was happy to meet them again and see them surviving. Next morning we began cutting down trees to take back to our farm. No chain saws for us but instead the old long saws with a handle at each end. Two of us would kneel down, one at each end of the saw and cut away at the base of a tree trunk. We were told to cut the tree as low down as possible to avoid wastage. Once the tree was down we used hatchets to chop off all the branches and pile them neatly in a heap where told to by the forestry staff. These trees were not huge ones. By the time we had prepared them for taking home they were about six or seven metres long and two of us were able to place them on the cart. We worked all day until we had anything up to twenty tree trunks on our cart. After a night’s sleep we were ready for the return journey. With our heavy load the way back was more difficult with problems from time to time. Sometimes wheels got stuck when the road was sandy or had difficulty if there was slight incline. When this happened we “lumberjacks” had to push and shove to help the oxen. I didn’t actually get any pay for this work at the time but a note was made of it in the farm’s accounting books which would hopefully mean I might get something later. On reaching home my family were interested to hear all about my trip and were happy to hear of my meeting with our Polish friends.
Among our Polish friends in our village was Mrs. Januszajtis who had been deported with us to Siberia with her four little children and their nanny. Her husband was a captain in the regular army and his brother a general. Her husband had just disappeared in the fighting early in the war and she did not know what had happened to him. It was quite a number of years later before she learned he had been in a Russian labour camp. The four children were very young, the eldest being probably about seven or eight. In the early summer of 1941 every one of us was suffering from malnutrition and starvation. One of the two youngest of these children died because of the terrible conditions. A tiny coffin was made for this child and we held a little Christian service for it. We had been told by the Russians where we could dig a grave which was at a spot some little way outside the village. We had dug through the top soil, then the clay and had come to sand. There was no priest but we made a wooden cross which Zbyszek held up at the head of a small procession through the village. As we walked to the grave that sad day, with Zybszek carrying the cross at the front and some of us carrying the coffin and others walking behind, some of the villagers emerged from their houses to see what was going on as they were not used to such a custom. At the graveside we sang a few hymns and said some prayers. The child was buried, the grave filled in and the wooden cross planted there to mark the spot. Shortly afterwards a second child of this family died, the youngest of the remaining three. The whole sad ceremony of the funeral had to be repeated. It was little boy, Wojtek and the little girl Marysia who had died leaving their two older sisters. As if this wasn’t enough misery for Mrs Januszajtis more was to follow. All the spare clothes and other belongings she had managed to bring from Poland had all been given away as rent or bartered for food and now the Russians in whose house she lived asked her to leave as they didn’t want her staying with them any longer. She had nowhere to go and nothing to offer anyone in the way of rent so we invited her to come and stay with us. She gladly accepted and moved in so there was now nine of us in one room. Luckily it was the beginning of summer so we could overflow out of doors during the day.