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.
Time passed and it was Christmas Eve, 1939. We had managed somehow to scrape together a traditional Wigilia meal of twelve courses using no meat. Apart from Bronek we were all there along with two girlfriends of Marysia and Kazia. We ate the meal and then sang carols for a while before Zybszek and I decided to go to bed and left the others talking. Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door and when father opened it he was roughly pushed back into the house by about six Russian soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. One soldier entered my bedroom where I lay in bed already awakened by all the noise. He demanded that I get up and stand by my bed and not to talk or move. He stood guard over me, pointing his gun with the bayonet on it at my chest. Meanwhile in the other room where everyone else was, a soldier proclaimed he had orders to search the house. For the next two hours they searched thoroughly for "anti-Communist literature and weapons". They opened drawers and cupboards and really looked in every conceivable place. We were all terrified. After the search, in which they found nothing, they announced that they would be taking father with them. Marysia protested loudly and was crying. One solider pushed her back into a chair and told her to be quiet. Mother quickly gathered a few essentials into a bag for father to take with him and soon the soldiers left with him and disappeared into the darkness.
We were left in total silence in a state of shock. Then some began to cry and we were all in despair, not knowing what to do. We began to talk and wonder where father had been taken and what the future held for us all.
It took about two weeks for us to find out that father was being held in part of the railway station which had been turned into a temporary prison. Mother was able to take him a change of clothing which she gave to the guards as she was not allowed to see father. One day, about two weeks later, she was turned away by the guards as father was no longer there. We were given no information as to what had happened to him, or where he might be.
Life continued for us with difficulty. No news of Bronek and no news of father. Thanks to mother we still had food that she had stored for the winter. There was salted pork, bottled tomatoes, pickled gherkins, sauerkraut, dried apples, prunes, homemade wine and other things. We still had a milking cow, chickens, geese and a pig or two so we were much better off than most people.
Father’s good friend Mr Olszewski, who had worked with him for many years at the station at Olechnowicze, had also been arrested and had disappeared like him. His wife was very distressed and too frightened to stay on in Olechnowicze without him so we took her in along with her son and daughter, Josef and Halina, who were a few years younger than me.
We carried on in this dismal fashion until Spring and then there was another loud knock on the door. This time it was five o’clock in the morning. Again it was another handful of armed Russian soldiers, some of them KGB. One of them read out a proclamation that stated we were considered to be a dangerous element and a risk to the Soviet Union while we remained in Mołodeczno which was now relatively near the new border with German-occupied territory.
They ordered each of us to collect some belongings as we were to be taken from our home and removed elsewhere. Mrs. Olszewska asked what was to happen to her as she was not part of our family and she was informed that she was also to go. Mother exclaimed that neither was Zbyszek, who was only twelve, part of our immediate family and belonged back in Warsaw but was told that he must come along with us as well.
Can you imagine our feelings? What a dilemma we were in. What should we take that would be of most use to us? The soldiers had brought a horse and cart for us to put our belongings on. We all gathered what we could with no time to think properly. And so, after some time we had put our pitiful bundles and cases onto the cart and left our home and all our most precious things behind including most of our stored food and all the farm animals. We walked to some railway sidings not far from the station. There we found a cattle train made up of many red wagons waiting for us in which already were many of our neighbours with their bundles of belongings.
We boarded one wagon in which there were already people and soon there were twenty seven of us. They were of different ages, from babies to the very old. There were of course no facilities, just the bare cattle wagon with a large wooden shelf at either end on which some people could lie. The wagons were rather small so we were cramped indeed. Shortly an open lorry arrived with loaves of bread for sale and we were allowed to alight to purchase them. One of the soldiers guarding us quietly suggested to me to buy as many of the loaves as I could. We took his advice.
We stayed two days in these sidings while more and more people were brought to fill up this long train. Armed soldier guards stood all along the outside of the train. We only had our own food as nothing was provided. Once a day two persons from each wagon were escorted from the train to fetch hot water so that a hot drink could be made, providing of course people had brought some tea or coffee with them. No water was provided for washing. Toilet arrangements were of the crudest. Periodically we were allowed to leave the wagons and relieve ourselves just outside while being guarded by the soldiers. There was no privacy for anyone.
At some time during these two days I managed to slip away without being noticed by the guards. My plan was to return to our house and pick up some more things that might be useful to us in the days and weeks to come. On the way there I met my school girlfriend, Stanisława and she suggested I go to her house where I could hide. I had to tell her I could not possibly do that as I must return to the train to look after my mother, sisters and young cousin. And so we parted. When I reached our house I found it securely locked with even an official seal on it. Disappointed at not finding any way to enter the house I had to return to the train empty-handed. When I got back a guard refused to let me back on the train! I had to argue with him for some time before he would let me board again to join my family.
Yet another time I managed to slip out to urinate. This time I was spotted by the guards who quickly surrounded me with their fixed bayonets pointing at my chest. When I had finally convinced them of my purpose for being there they told me to just go ahead while they still stood there. Impossible, so I just had to get back on the train.
There was a mother with two teenage daughters with us on the train who were neighbours of ours. The father had been arrested just like our father. These two girls left the train when people were going for hot water. Somehow they managed to slip away, calmly walking off arm in arm, as if they had no connection with the train and its occupants. They were not missed at that time by the guards. Their mother was now all alone but had in fact discussed this escape plan with her daughters and told them to go ahead.
We spent two days and two nights on the train before it started to move, very early in the morning and we were off on our journey. None of us had any idea where our ultimate destination would be. We soon realised we were in Russia and it was not long befo re we passed through Minsk. There was only one small window in the wagon, or maybe two, measuring roughly nine inches by twenty four inches. There was no glass, only a wooden flap to close it.
The train would stop from time to time to let us alight to relieve ourselves. Men and women, old and young together with no privacy for anyone. One or two people had brought a chamber pot with them on this journey so if really hard pressed would use it while the train was travelling. One old man was making use of his pot when a woman in his wagon complained and protested that he could at least open the window. He replied that he could not do two things at the one time. In utter frustration one woman emptied her full potty out of the window while the train was moving. The contents landed on a luckless soldier sitting on the step below. He began swearing and continued for a long time but he didn’t know who was responsible and there were no repercussions for any of us.
Once a day the train would stop in a station and we would be given hot water to make a hot drink and occasionally some watery soup. Sometimes when the train stopped Russian people would come to stare at our cattle train, filled with Polish people, obviously being transported somewhere against their will. These people appeared ill fed and sad as well as poorly clad. We had heard there was a shortage of food, including bread, so we threw some of our bread to them. We on the train then began singing to them, one of the Russian propaganda songs which had been blaring out continually back in Mołodeczno over the loudspeakers since the Russians had arrived. "Our country is big There is freedom, equality and plenty for everyone, For young people the roads are open, Old people have recognition and respect." We hoped that seeing us being deported would give these miserable Russians some food for thought.
The train didn’t go at a great speed and sometimes the soldiers would open the sliding doors a little and secure them. This gave us a better chance to observe the countryside outside. One day we passed by lots of silver birch trees with their leaves just opening and their bark almost white. On and on we travelled, through rather flat country, and always eastwards. South of Moscow we passed by the city of Tuła and on towards the Ural Mountains which separate Europe from Asia. Through the Urals and on towards Omsk. Somewhere past there and before reaching Novosibirsk, after two long weeks, our train finally stopped for us at Szczerbakty (Polish spelling). It was a small village with a large modern flour mill, a post office, a KGB office, a station of course and a restaurant with no food. We were in Siberia. A parting vindictive remark from a soldier to us was "Here you will stay and here you will die".
A Russian official arrived at our wagon, the doors were opened wide and he read out our names. This was when the two young sisters were found to be missing and the official was very angry indeed but there was nothing he could do about it. An open lorry was waiting to transport us even further. We p iled into the lorry with our belongings and I think were was twenty one of us, made up of members from six families. After driving about six miles we came to our final destination, the communal farm and community of Kus-Kuduk (Polish spelling and pronounced in English as Koos-Koodook).
We were told to take our things off the lorry and remain there while the woman in charge of the farm tried to find accommodation for us among the people living there who all worked on the farm. Obviously we had not been expected but this woman farm manager had the authority to make householders take us in whether they wanted to or not.
We were shown to a house at the far end of the village occupied by an old woman, dressed all in black and none too clean. She had a son of about thirty living with her. There were only two rooms in this house and little furniture. The woman and her son had to take one of the rooms and we the other. As Mrs Olszewska and her two children were with us that made eight of us living and sleeping in one room. About the first thing this old woman did was light the clay brick stove in “our” room, even although it was a warm day. She fed it with dog dung and straw and soon the room was completely filled with smoke and we all had to go outside into the open air to breathe. This was her way of showing her feelings towards us.
Two or three days later we found other accommodation with a more sympathetic family. Again it was a two roomed house (in fact they all were). One room had a stove and the owner, his wife and two sons chose to keep this room for themselves, although we were allowed to use this stove for our little cooking. We had the other room and Mrs. Okszewski with her two children moved into the house next door. For rent we gave our landlord, Mr. Imilyansov perhaps a shirt, and later a tablecloth and we helped him in any way we could. The only fuel these poor people had was dried dung, straw and Piołun (a dried tall weed that grows in Siberia (worm wood)). We collected these things and gave them to the landlord.
As the road coming from Szczerbakty (pronounced Schcher-bak-tee) arrived at Kus-Kuduk, it passed between the farm buildings. There were barns and byres where cows, horses and sheep had to be sheltered during the long severe winter months. There was also the farm office where the names of all the farm workers were kept. Alongside their names a record was kept of the days they worked. These were long days in summer but shorter in winter. There were some other buildings and a large well where water was obtained for all the animals. The road passed between these buildings then divided into two parallel straight roads with farm workers' houses spaced along each side of them. When the houses ended so did the roads. All the way from Szczerbakty the road surface was made only by people, animals and vehicles travelling over the bare earth. As it never rained the roads were dry and dusty in the summer, quickly covered by snow in winter and with the sudden springs they would just as quickly dry up again.
There were about forty houses in all and each house had only two rooms. The walls and floors were made of clay. Wood was in very short supply but nevertheless the roof ridge was made of the trunk of a pine tree which stretched from the top of one high gable end to the other. Thin strips of wood were then interwoven with dried Piołun stalks and stretched over the space between the top of the walls, back and front of the house, up to the ridge. Over this structure wet clay was plastered on and when this dried another coat was added. The finished roof covering had about five layers in all and it was important for the last coating to be mixed with cow’s dung which made it more waterproof. This clay roof worked surprisingly well and when the snow melted on it in the springtime the snow quickly slid off its sloping sides.
Each room had one window made with the usual wooden frame and glass. Every house had a primitive clay brick stove, one part of it was for heating pots and the other for baking bread. There was hardly any furniture; only a table, a bench, a wooden chest and that was about all. Near the stove there was a kind of shelf where two people could sleep and this might be warm in the wintertime. Apart from that there were no beds but only some planks of wood which could be made up at night so that people could s leep about one foot above the clay floor. There never was any covering on the floor such as a mat or a rug. There were no toilets, either inside or outside. Each house had a small barn near it in which to keep a cow and this was used by people as a toilet. If not there they would go round the back of the barn, outside in the fresh air. There was only one toilet in the whole community and that was rather primitive and outside the office. It was for the use of the three or four people who managed this communal farm.
Probably the farm had been purpose built after the revolution and it was a poor miserable place. In summer the workers worked long hours growing mainly potatoes, wheat, sunflowers and water melons. The rich soil was watered by the previous winter’s melting snow. The harvest depended on the amount of snow which had fallen. The landscape was completely flat for as far as the eye could see and farther. No trees grew near the farm except for an odd few planted between the houses by people. There was no stream or river nearby and the nearest lake was about seven miles away. Cows, sheep and pigs were kept in the farm and individual workers were allowed to keep a cow, a pig or a few sheep if desired.
The workers were paid once a year … or not at all if there had been a poor harvest. When the harvest had been gathered a substantial part of it had to be given to the government in payment for the use of their agricultural machinery such as tractors and combine harvesters. If the harvest was poor, and that depended entirely on the previous winter’s snowfall, this levy still had to be paid. Sometimes there wasn’t enough wheat etc. grown and then the communal farm where we were would have to borrow from a neighbouring farm to pay their quota to the government. Needless to say the government had to get their quota of the harvest before the workers got any share of it. A note was kept of the hours the farm workers actually worked; long hours in the summer and shorter in the winter.
Their annual pay was a share of the produce and some money. Naturally everyone realised how important it was to try and keep a store of food in case of a poor harvest. Potatoes were stored in a hole in the ground dug in the earthy floor of one of the rooms in the house, flour was kept in a sack and there was always a kind of open-topped bunker built of clay bricks in one room for keeping such things as sunflower seeds and grain.
Our position seemed hopeless as all we had was a roof over our heads. So far we had no means of earning anything and we realised right away we must at least try to obtain some flour. By bartering some item we had brought with us we obtained a small quantity of flour from a villager. We mixed some of this flour with a little water, kneaded it into dough then break off small pieces to boil in water, making our own pasta. A little of this twice a day was all we had to eat. At that time there was no work for us on the farm so the future looked bleak. Occasionally we obtained a little milk, not enough to drink but we added this to the water we boiled our pasta in and ‘hey presto’ this was soup for us. There must have been little nutrition in this concoction but that was all we had.
Very gradually we found ways of slightly improving our food supply. For instance we were sometimes successful in hiring ourselves out to the villagers to carry out different tasks. One thing I did was to have myself lowered down into wells to clear out the silt that had accumulated at the bottom. Nearly every house had its own well, roughly six metres deep and with sides strengthened by wood which always showed signs of rotting. Firstly I would be lowered to the bottom of the well and then a bucket on a chain would be lowered down for me to fill with silt. Once full, someone above would turn the handle to haul the full bucket up and empty it. This procedure was repeated until all the silt had been removed and then it was my turn to be pulled up. For this rather unpleasant, claustrophobic task I was given whatever the well-owners had to spare, usually some flour.
Another job my sisters and I did was to take part in the summer production of clay bricks. Top soil was removed from a circular shape about three metres in diameter. The topsoil was only about 30 centimetres deep and below it was clay and this we had to dig over to break it up. Now we added water and began trampling it with our bare feet. Some straw was added to give the finished brick strength. We worked on until we had the clay in the correct consistency. We would have ready some open-topped wooden boxes in the shape of large bricks and these we would fill with our prepared clay. When filled they were very heavy but had to be lifted, carried away a short distance and then turned over and emptied onto the ground, like a child’s sandcastle. There they would be left to dry in the hot summer sun. We worked for hours, trampling the clay mixture, filling the boxes and turning them out. These bricks were all people had to build with. Again we were paid with whatever could be spared. As well as flour we might get some potatoes or if really lucky a piece of pork fat. A bit of fried pork fat added a tasty luxury to our interminable boiled pasta.
Sometimes we were invited by the family who hired us to join them in their evening meal. Money of course was no good to anyone as there were no shops or anything to buy. However, once a year a supply of vodka would arrive and people could use money to buy their ration of one or two bottles. About once a year a kin d of market would come to the nearest railway station where some basic clothing was on sale and I will tell of that later in this story.
Early in our stay in Siberia we had a visit from a uniformed member of the KGB (secret police). All the Polish deportees in our village, who were made up of women and children apart from myself and two other younger lads, were summoned to the office in the farm. This was in the only wooden building in the place. He sat, with his gun on the table in front of him, in an aggressive way and with a very unfriendly manner. He gave out orders, telling us among other things that we must stay on the farm and not wander away anywhere. Touching his gun, he said if we disobeyed we would be severely punished. It would have been practically impossible to escape from this place as all around was nothing but the flat Russian Steppes. Before leaving he asked if anyone had any questions. One young girl spoke up and asked him what we were supposed to eat. “That is not my business” he replied, before rising to leave. “I will be back to check on you,” he continued, “and I will want to see you all again”.
Sometime later he did return and when it was nightfall he told my family he would sleep in our house. This seemed an extraordinary thing to do as one would suppose he could have found a better place on the farm to lie down than in a room with five prisoners. However, he came and laid on the floor, keeping his uniform on and his gun handy. During the night my mother quietly roused me and whispered that she had heard the KGB man talking in his sleep. He had seemingly muttered something about arresting me. My alarmed Mother told me to flee and run far away. I rose quickly and quietly slipped out of the house but did not know where to go. As I moved between the houses in the dark I thought of a good place to hide, in a neighbour’s small pig sty with their pig. The moment the pig was aware of my presence it started making the most fiendish noise so I had to run for my life. I went quite far away from the houses to a field where the crop had been cut leaving enough stubble for me to lie down in and be hidden. Dawn came and I could watch the activities going on in the farm from a distance. Nothing untoward seemed to be happening bu t I lay hidden all day. Only when it got dark did I decide to venture back to our house. By this time I was exceedingly thirsty and hungry. My family were overjoyed at my return having made up their minds that I had gone for ever and they would never see me again. It turned out that the KGB man had had no intention of arresting me as in the morning he had just got up and left.
By the time we arrived in Siberia in that first year all the snow had already melted. The farm workers were all anxious to plant the crops as quickly as possible while the soil still retained a lot of moisture. All the farm machinery was taken out of the barns and set to work on the land. Often the soil was too muddy and vehicles would get bogged down and have to be rescued by the one vehicle which had caterpillar tracks. In all this hive of activity we hoped that the farm manageress would find a job for us but in this we were unsuccessful.
Time hung on our hands. To earn a little food we did any odd jobs for our neighbours that we could. Mother had brought from Poland her hand operated Singer sewing machine and picked up a little work from the villagers altering and mending things. We still had some belongings which we could barter for food. Kazia and Marysia had their guitar and mandolin and one day a group of us Polish youth gathered just outside the village in the sun and began to enjoy a little music and dancing. This unaccustomed frivolity soon attracted some of the local boys who came over to hopefully jo in in. The Polish girls were having none of them and went off home. Poor boys! Our sad predicament was not of their making and they should not have had to suffer because of it. In time the mandolin and guitar had to go, bartered for food to prevent us from starving to death. The occupants of desperate situation themselves.
I would like, perhaps, at this point of the story to give you a little idea of some of the other occupants of our small community. There was Mrs. A whose name I can’t quite remember and who came from the Ukraine. She had been sent to Siberia some years previously because her husband had been put in prison for some trivial offence. She had about half a dozen children and worked on the farm. Her eldest son was lucky enough to be serving in the Russian Navy despite his father’s imprisonment and was particularly proud to do so. He came to visit his Mother during one of his leaves and went out hi s way to chat to me. One day he produced a map of the world and showing it to me pointed out all the countries shaded in pink, which I knew was the British Empire. “Do you see that,” he said, “all these countries belong to England but we are going to free them all and liberate their people from being exploited by capitalists”. Who was I to argue with him in that situation?
The manageress of the farm had thrown her husband out to the next communal farm and divorced him. She had a lover half her age who visited our farm on a regular basis as part of his job. He wore a uniform and went round the district lecturing the populace on what was going on in the world and how the USSR was endeavouring to liberate people from capitalist exploitation. The manageress liked to drink and seemed to have more access to vodka than anyone else. Often, while tipsy she visited the next house we stayed in as she was somehow related to our “new landlord”. She was very friendly in this state and called me “Handsome”. She stayed for hours and there would be lots of noise and singing. One day an itinerant cobbler and his wife arrived and set up home in an empty house. They were a nice-looking couple in their thirties and were particularly civil and pleasant to talk to. The cobbler made wonderful winter boots, shaped like Wellingtons and made completely of wool. Firstly the wool had to be specially prepared and made into felt which he shaped into a knee-length boot. Then the boot was put into an oven to dry out, stiffen and harden. The whole boot was made of this felt, even the soles. These boots were for wearing in the winter when there was always snow on the ground. They were ideal and everyone who could afford a pair wore them. In our second winter I managed to find a pair with the soles completely worn away which someone had thrown out. I cut new soles from an old piece of rubber tyre and attached these to the boots with wire stitches. I then wore them but they were terribly heavy to say the least. The cobbler was usually paid with food and vodka. Unfortunately, he drank too much and would then beat up his wife who, although bruised, never complained to anyone. He drank and drank and it began to affect his work. His newly made boots no longer stood proud and erect but fell over in a crumpled heap. When sober he was a very nice chap but when drunk he would pick a quarrel with anyone.
The farm employed a “knocker up” who was a man who came round about sunrise, riding a horse and carrying a long wooden pole. He would knock hard on the worker’s houses calling, “Come out to work”. It was necessary to have this man as no one in the village had a clock or a watch!
We had a village post woman who carried milk to Szczerbakty and transported letters and parcels back and forth. In summer she had a horse and cart and in winter a sledge with either a horse or ox to pull it. Near the end of our fi rst winter in Siberia this woman was returning from Szczerbakty when the wind started up and soon it developed into the typical BURAN, a gale force wind containing sand and snow. Soon she was unable to see her way and was freezing cold so she decided to let the horse walk on and she walked immediately behind the sledge which gave her a little protection. Shortly afterwards however she realised the horse and sledge had disappeared from in front of her and she was completely alone. She struggled on in what she hoped was the right direction towards the village which she knew could not be far. Miraculously she stumbled into the village where she was found and taken to hospital. She had frostbite on her fingers and toes and even on other parts of her body. There was no sign of the horse and sledge. The post woman slowly recovered and in time was able to resume her job. The poor horse was only found some weeks later in early springtime when the thick snow began to melt. Outside the village there was a large, long hay stack covered with snow. As the snow melted the top of the stack appeared and then beside it the head of the horse. As more snow melted away the horse could be seen resting against the hay stack, with the sledge, where the animal must have taken shelter from the wind and snow.