NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
In 1921 I was born in Olechnowicze, a village on the Polish side of the border with Russia. My parents already had three children, Kazia (Kazimiera) seven years old, Marysia (Maria) five years and Bronek (Bronisław) two years. Most people in the village were engaged in agriculture and roughly half of them were Polish, half of them White Russians and with quite a few Jewish families too. The village had a railway station and it was here my father was employed as deputy station master along with his good friend Josef Olszewski who was the station master.
My father and mother did not belong to this part of Poland but had moved here from Warsaw because of my father’s work. The station was a terminus for internal Polish trains and it had a railway yard with extra railway lines and goods wagons so that although there were not many trains it was kept busy loading and unloading. Produce, such as apples, grains, pigs and even the local famous delicacy, a cake called Piernik Torunski was brought to this station to be transported west into Poland to be sold.
Sometimes a train would arrive from Russia but as their rail tracks were wider the trains could go no further and goods had to be transferred to Polish trains if they were to proceed. I remember the crews of these trains, buying up all they could from the two local shops to take back home to Russia where so much was in short supply. Apart from a grocers and a hardware shop there was a Post Office, a police station with one policeman and a lawyers but no church. The nearest church was four miles away and my family walked there every Sunday except when there was snow and then my father would hire a horse and sledge for the journey. Our house, beside the railway line, near the station was in a small terrace of four houses of wooden construction. The other three houses were occupied by the station master and his family, Mr Urbanski the lawyer and one house was used by railway engine crews when they had to stay overnight.
Olechnowicze was a great place for young children. There was plenty of room for them to run about and explore in safety. In summer there was the small river to swim and splash about in and try one’s hand at catching fish. When it froze in winter we could slide on it. There was always plenty of snow and we could ski from the door of the house to nearby hills and enjoy ourselves on the slopes. Perhaps from a child’s point of view it was doubly blessed as there was no school. Our father was very keen on sport and taught us to throw the discus and javelin and encouraged us to play volleyball.
A large piece of ground came with the house and my mother put it to good use. She grew all types of vegetables including gherkins, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and beetroots and also some fruit. She bottled the tomatoes and salted the gherkins and they lasted all through the winter.
My mother kept chickens, geese, turkeys, a few pigs and two cows. The day began for mother with milking the cows very early in the morning, then going on to feed the chickens, pigs, etc., looking after the vegetable garden and of course caring for her family. With no electricity or modern conveniences that we enjoy nowadays she worked extremely hard. As Kazia and Marysia grew older they were given tasks to do about the house to help mother. With the milk from the cows we were able to make butter and crowdie cheese and there was still some milk left over which mother sold. We cooked on a really primitive wood burning stove which was only lit when we were going to cook something. The flat top had three round holes on which we placed our saucepans with their bases in direct contact with the flames underneath. The only way to control the heat was to place a special iron into the opening smaller. I think each hole had two rings and then a small disc could be inserted which finally closed the hole completely. Cooking on this stove must have been a bit of a nightmare. To bake anything there was an oven beside the stove but separate and it needed its own fire underneath. Once a week mother baked bread. For the first few days the fresh bread with our own butter was delicious but as the week drew to a close the bread was certainly a little on the hard side.
Their children’s education must have been a worry for our parents but help was at hand. A well-to-do neighbour who lived in a lovely house in a small estate was not too far away, took an interest in education and offered to teach some of the village children. This lady is remembered fondly by my sisters. Children did not commence their primary education until the age of seven and so, when the time came, my sisters and then later my brother, walked to this lady’s house for their lessons. Walking there was not really easy as there wasn’t a proper road, but only a path which led through a wood and then over two hills. She was pleased to have the company of children as her own son was a doctor in faraway Warsaw. During the summer her grandson came to stay with her and then I would be invited to come and play with him which was a treat for me as I enjoyed his company and the tasty fruit from their large orchard and often other goodies too. But nothing stays the same and children grow older so of course the time came for my sisters to attend secondary school.
The nearest school was at Mołodechno, approximately fifteen to eighteen miles away. It was a fee-paying school which also took boarders, so off my sisters had to go and only came home for the occasional weekend and holidays. About this time a primary school was built in a village about one mile distance from us and it was there that I began my education. When Bronek approached the age for secondary school it raised a problem for my parents. The cost of educating three children at a fee-paying school plus the charges for boarding them was going to be a strain on our finances so my parents made a big decision – to move to Mołodeczno.
It wasn’t easy for my parents to find a house to rent that suited them and we lived in two separate houses before we found a house we really liked. The great attraction about this house was its lovely large orchard in which grew a variety of different kinds of apples and also cherries, pears and plums. The house itself was perfectly adequate for our needs but, like most houses at that time in that part of Poland, it had no inside water. There was a well near the house, in the orchard, where water was drawn. Sad to say there were no waste or sewerage pipes either and so our toilet was outside, some distance from the house. In fact at this particular house it was across the road! Luckily for us it was a very quiet road.
We settled down to live happily here. Mother cultivated the garden and grew all kinds of vegetables and enough tomatoes to last throughout the year, bottling many and selling some too. We had chickens, ducks, a cow or two and a few pigs. Father still worked in Olechnowicze, travelling there by train and often having to stay there for the night.
Mołodeczno was quite a small town. I don’t know what the population was but it did have a lot of amenities. Apart from two primaries and one secondary school there were three churches, a Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and a Synagogue. There were quite a few shops including two selling clothes and once a week a market was held and the neighbouring farmers brought in their fresh produce to sell. We had two cinemas and public sauna baths. Our official buildings included a hospital, police station, council offices, a court building with a sheriff officer, two army barracks and a railway station so we were quite well provided for. My favourite shop was one that sold among other things sweets and in particular bars of thick chocolate which tasted delicious to me.There was very little traffic, mostly horses and carts, with only the occasional car and the even more occasional bus which I think only visited once a week. The army had a few lorries but even their artillery guns were pulled on gun carriages by horses.
Mother continued to bake her own bread as did many other women and they took a pride in doing this. Shop bread was probably dearer in Poland at this time than in Britain. Sometimes we would have to buy bread from the shop if we ran short but the home-made bread was best, especially when newly baked. Not only did mother bake the bread but instead of buying flour from a shop she bought grain direct from the farmer and had it ground into flour at the local mill. She was certainly a very hard working and thrifty woman.I must have been about twelve years old when we moved to Mołodeczno and so attended one of the primary schools for two years before going onto the secondary to join my brother Bronek.
By that time my two sisters had left school and gone off to a teacher training college in southern Poland. One of my father’s many brothers (he was the youngest of twelve brothers and one sister) was a veterinary surgeon in Warsaw and because the schools there were overcrowded or some other educational reason it was decided that his eldest son, Henryk, should come and stay with us and attend our excellent school. He did this and completed his education and then went off to an army cadet school, ending up as Captain in the Polish Army.
I enjoyed my secondary education especially the sporting activities. We played volley ball and basketball but not football which was considered too dangerous for children. I was involved in matches with other schools and as I grew older I was in school teams that played against the army teams and railway teams. I remember all these matches being well attended by all the many supporters and with no sign of any hooliganism. I was very keen on athletics, particularly throwing the shot put, discus and javelin.
One day I was practising throwing the javelin near my house with Henryk and a friend. Instead of my friend carrying the javelin back after a throw to where I was standing he decided to throw it. I didn’t see him doing this but suddenly noticed the javelin sailing through the air, straight towards my stomach. My reaction was to jump into the air, hoping the javelin would pass between my legs but instead it struck my right foot. It so happened I was barefoot on that summer’s day and the javelin entered the top of my foot and went straight through, protruding three inches out my sole. It caused a hot burning pain. Henryk grabbed my foot with one hand and pulled the javelin free with the other. I was then transported to the doctors who patched me up and then home to bed. When father came home in the evening he was angry at the whole episode and chopped up the javelin. I couldn’t walk or run properly for a long time and it spoilt my whole summer. Luckily in time all was well but my right foot has always remained a bit smaller than my left foot from that time.Later I entered many athletic competitions and did very well, winning prizes when there were any. Bronek also did well at sport. Once he won a silver cigarette case for gaining the highest score of points for all the different events in a co mpetition open to young people from all over our part of the country. He also came in first at a cross-country ski race and must have been delighted with the prize of a new pair of skis. Later, when he went off to college, he left these skis with me and I managed to break them in three places when I took a tumble while wearing them.
The small river which gave us so much pleasure in Olechnowicze wound its way into Mołodeczno growing in width and depth all the time. Its name was the river Usza (pronounced Oosha) and it was now roughly fifteen to twenty yards wide and quite deep in places. There were plenty of fish in it, mainly pike, perch and roach, which were fished with rods and sometimes nets and all for free. Father was a keen fisherman (in fact Rybarczyk could be translated as fisherman) and passed on his knowledge to Bronek and me. We fished from the bank of the river but sometimes borrowed a boat for a change. I remember one day of inclement weather when I was wearing some kind of raincoat and fishing from a boat. The rod was rather heavy but I cast my line with as much energy as I could muster and toppled out of the boat, flat onto the water with a large splash.
On hot summer days we had hours of carefree pleasure swimming and splashing about in this exhilarating river. Every winter the river would freeze over and then it was time for skating. The nearby meadows would flood and then freeze so we had a very wide area on which to skate. Not content with that my friends and I would skate for a few miles along the river which of course was dangerous as the ice did not form evenly and could be thin in places and not able to support our weight. We were lucky and none of us ever fell through.
When we were young we did not want to realise the dangers. Snow and skiing were other joys we experienced every winter. We would ski from the house to nearby small hills to enjoy ourselves. Of course there were no ski-tows to pull us up the hills so it was strenuous work climbing up with skis on all the time but we were young and fit. Nearer home we built our own ski-jump with lots of snow. We would come whizzing down a steep embankment near the railway lines and then up and over the ski jump which was very exciting for us.
When we moved to Mołodeczno our house had no electricity but a year or two later it was installed. I think it was mainly used for lighting but it made a wonderful difference for us. About this time we obtained an early wireless, a crystal set complete with "catąs whisker". A friend who had a similar set and knew a bit about electricity came to install this contraption. He fixed an aerial wire from the roof of a nearby wooden barn to our house. The wire was led through the sitting room window to a switch and from there an earth wire went down, through the floor to the ground. One day Kazia was sitting on the couch, beside this switch, with a couple she had befriended. Outside there was a storm with thunder and lightning and it set fire to the barn! The electricity travelled along the wire and into the house to the switch. Some of the power ran down the earth wire into the ground but some electricity jumped into the metal springs of the nearby couch and into Kazia’s back, burning it rather badly. Kazia had been sitting with her legs crossed and with one foot on the floor. The electricity ran through her body, down her leg and into the nails holding down the wooden floorboards and damaging the floor as it did so. Kazia was stunned and only semiconscious and thought she was going to die. She remembers how sad it was that, after all her hard work at school and college, she was going to die just at the beginning of her teaching career. A cushion on the couch was on fire but the visiting couple were untouched. They decided to carry Kazia outside of the house altogether. When they laid her on the ground any remaining electricity in her body seemed to run down into the earth and she began to recover. She had a nasty deep burn on her back which took a long time to heal and it was three months before she felt really well again. The wooden barn burned out completely. Probably the earthling wire from the switch down into the ground was a bit faulty but if it hadn’t been there Kazia would have been killed and our entire wooden house burnt down.
The day this happened was some kind of Holy day, around the end of February, and Kazia had been to church. She had taken with her some medicinal herbs and had them blessed with holy water. She had these herbs on her person when the lightning struck and deeply believes they were in some way responsible for saving her life.
Bronek did well at school particularly at mathematics and physics and the whole family were overjoyed when he won a much prized place at the Polish Navy’s cadet officers training college. We were a contented family. We did not have a luxurious lifestyle but we had all we really needed; a happy home life, plenty to eat and good health. We thought the scene was set for us to continue with our lives and to prosper but two vile monsters were waiting in the wings of our stage, to the west Hitler and to the east Stalin - neighbours from hell.
By 1939 Kazia had found herself a teacher’s position in a school near Lwow and so had moved away from home. On the other hand Marysia did not want to move from Mołodeczno so when she qualified as a teacher she did some private tutoring and also took evening classes in one of the local schools. Bronek had left home to attend the Naval College in Torun, far away in north west Poland. Our cousin Henryk’s young brother, twelve year old Zbyszek, had joined our household to attend the nearby school. I was seventeen and still at school myself at this time.
Our crystal-set had been replaced by a modern wireless. It was a smart, box shaped wooden one on which we could receive many stations, some of them from other countries. We enjoyed the music on this machine but the news we heard from it was worrying. Things we read about in the newspapers became increasingly alarming. Germany was threatening our neighbours. Hitler’s strident, maniacal voice continually interrupted German programmes on the radio, shouting his threats. In time he just sent his armies into some of the countries adjoining us. He demanded that Poland should build him an autobahn across Poland from Germany to Prussia, joining these two countries. This was to be in the north where Poland had the port of Gydnia on the Baltic Sea and became known as the Polish Corridor. Poland categorically refused this outrageous demand.
On the morning of the first of September 1939, the German Army crossed over the border into western Poland. The German Luftwaffe attacked Warsaw and other towns with their bombers doing terrible damage. The Polish Air Force being very small, was no match for such an onslaught. The Polish Army was mobilised and our two barracks in Mołdoeczno were soon emptied of their soldiers who travelled westwards to defend their country. Young men were quickly called up, we who were left at home, dug trenches in which to shelter if attacked by the air. While I was engaged in doing this a German plane suddenly appeared and flew over us very low, circling two or three times. It never fired a shot or released a bomb but must have been out on surveillance. We, of course, were far from the fighting being on the eastern side of Poland, near the border with Russia. We listened for news on the radio and were repeatedly told, “We’re strong, united and ready”. Unfortunately, only one part of this was true. The population was certainly united in our readiness to fight to defend our country but were not strong and were certainly not ready for such a devastating attack. Germany had been building up its army with men and huge amounts of guns and tanks for years. Also its air force had been prepared for such an attack on its nearly defenceless neighbours.
That summer had been particularly dry and so the hordes of German tanks were able to swarm into Poland, not only on the roads but across farmland and open country. School continued for us and one day German planes flew over. Pupils and teachers took shelter in the school basement. Our teacher just then was a Polish priest teaching us the German language which he found slightly ironic. The planes aimed their bombs at the railway station and railway lines but missed. The only damage done was to a house which had its roof completely dislodged by about two feet when a bomb blew an enormous hole in their garden. This incident had a psychological effect on us, bringing the war even nearer. We listened to news on the radio which was all depressing. The Germans were advancing and our cities were being severely damaged by bombs. Sometime previously Poland, Great Britain and France had signed a treaty of friendship declaring that each would come to the aid of any one of the others were they attacked. Britain demanded that Germany withdraws unconditionally from Poland and when Hitler refused to do so Britain declared war on Germany on September 3rd 1939. This news raised our spirits and gave us hope but in fact did not help our situation at that time.
On September 17th 1939 we heard on the radio that the Russian Army was invading us from the east. There was probably little or no resistance from us as we didn’t expect such an attack and also all our soldiers had been sent to defend Poland from the Germans in the west. Later in the day of September 17th the Russian Soviet Army entered Mołodeczno, Russian planes had earlier dropped leaflets stating that they were coming to “liberate the people of Poland” and there would be death to all the oppressors of the people such as landowners and capitalists. On reading these pamphlets and hearing guns firing in the distance some men made a quick decision to try and escape from the oncoming Bolsheviks by going westwards and hopefully joining up with some Polish Resistance Movement of which they had heard rumours. These men were mostly policemen, landowners, railway workers, government officials or well educated men who would be under threat.
On first hearing the noise of the tanks rumbling into our town over the cobble stones many people ventured out onto the streets. They were frightened, saddened and depressed and didn’t know what to expect. In fact it has to be said that the ordinary Russian soldiers to arrive first were reasonably well behaved and friendly. They reassured us they had come to protect us from the Germans. They might have believed this but we didn’t. If that had been the case surely they would all have passed right through Mołodeczno and gone westwards to meet the Germans. When the soldiers arrived the first bit of liberating they did was to buy up everything in the shops until the shops were empty. They paid with their worthless Russian money and stocks were never replenished in the shops except for meagre supplies of bread and very few other things.
Russian soldiers were commanded to occupy most buildings of importance such as the railway station, post office, municipal buildings etc. Over and above these soldiers, others were placed in groups about the town in defensive positions in case they were attacked. It took them a few days to determine that our two empty barracks were safe to enter and to occupy.
Meanwhile we were still listening to the news on the radio. Already Polish programmes were being transmitted from Paris and London. The news coming from Radio Warsaw informed us that the Germans were now in the outskirts of our capital city. The mayor of Warsaw was heard on the radio broadcasting to our troops and encouraging them to fi ght on. Warsaw was being heavily bombarded, particularly the railways which were trying to move troops and there were heavy casualties. Listening to the radio and knowing we had allies such as Britain and France kept our spirits up and gave us great hope. However it soon became evident that Poland was being completely overrun by her two aggressors and by the end of October all Polish resistance had been overcome. Nazi Germany’s war machine had defeated and occupied western Poland while eastern Poland, virtually emptied of her army, had been taken over by Stalin’s Soviet Army.
It wasn’t long before the criminals in our local prison were released by the Russians and, along with some peasant White Russians from our neighbourhood, were formed into a kind of police force and were issued with rifles. As you can imagine they felt very important and it was humiliating for the law abiding Polish towns people. Then everyone had to come to a certain building to register, telling the number of people in each house hold and what work any of them did. Next step in our "liberation" was the arrival of the KGB (Members of Government Enquiries, a kind of Secret Police). They were dressed in their distinctive ice blue caps and green uniforms with little bits of bright colour near the collar. Their dress was much smarter and of superior quality than the poor ordinary soldier in his ill-fitting padded cotton Foeyka which made them look short and fat.
While I think of it I can remember these poor soldiers rolling their own cigarettes. For their cigarette papers they had only very poor quality newspaper from which they cut the desired shape. Their "tobacco" was some specially grown plant they called Karashki. It didn’t blend together like real tobacco and if the smoker wasn’t quick and very careful it just poured out from the ends of the cigarette. As soon as the cigarette was rolled the ends had to be sealed by being firmly twisted and squeezed.
The next step after registering was the beginning of the arrests of the heads of families. Those targeted were the people who ran the town such as council officials, teachers, railway workers, Post Office staff and anyone in a managerial position. Now all lessons in schools were to be taught in the Russian language. Several teachers, including our Polish Head teacher, had seen the writing on the wall and had made their escapes, disappearing westwards into oblivion. A few stayed on working in school and some of them were later arrested. The men arrested were kept incarcerated in different buildings in the town in very cramped, uncomfortable and unsuitable accommodation but at the time their families had no idea where they were, or what was going to happen to them.
As the days passed more and more Russian soldiers occupied our area. Early in this Russian invasion they had sent out orders for all railway workers to continue running the trains so father, who happened to be at home, reported for work in Mołodeczno, rather than return to Olechnowicze. He worked on, trying to keep a low profile and often sleeping away from home at night, as night-time was a favourite time for arrests to be made. Kazia had come home to stay with the rest of our family at such a devastating time. Bronek, of course, was completely cut off from us and we didn’t learn what had happened to him for a long time to come.
Winter was approaching and soon everywhere was covered with a thick carpet of snow. That winter was particularly cold and had more snow than usual. The shops were empty. Bread came every morning but people had to queue for two or three hours in the hope of getting some as there were not loaves for everyone. A Russian proverb says "if you have bread and water you are not starving". We still listened to the radio, particularly Polish news from Paris. It was heartening to learn that Polish troops who had managed to escape were being reformed into a fighting force in France.